This weekend I’m presenting a talk at the Conference on Science and Christianity (COSAC) for the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST). The conference theme is “A Hopeful Future: Christians, Creation, and the AI World.” Because of Covid-19, the conference is being held virtually, and it’s not too late to register.
My presentation takes the work of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman (media ecologists), and Charles Taylor, to suggest that technology is not neutral because it becomes part of the ecology that forms us as humans, and comes with inbuilt mythologies about the good life, and true human ends, including a sort of technological eschatology where a hope that people genuinely believe is good is the hope that we might become part of the machine. Technologist David Porush coined a term for the ‘good coding’ that would allow technology to mirror and interface and capture the human consciousness — “eudoxia” — or ‘good words’ — I’m playing that against Tolkien’s “eucatastrophe” — or ‘good catastrophe’ — the injection of hope from above when all seems hopeless that he sees as the quality of good human stories, because the satisfaction they bring is aligned with the true hope that comes from the Eucatastrophe at the heart of God’s interaction with creation; the incarnation, resurrection, and future return of Jesus. The “desire for dragons” he speaks of won’t necessarily be answered by Jurassic Park, and the use of technology to clone and resurrect dinosaurs (or by ‘augmented reality’ video games that bring the Jurassic world to life).
That’s not to give the game away too much, but as I was putting together this presentation (and you’ll find some of the building blocks in things I wrote about Telstra’s Magic of Technology advertisement, and Amazon Prime’s show Upload), I was struck again by the imagery of Ethiopia’s Church Forests. They’re such a stark picture of a non-technological response to a world where technology is used to dominate the physical landscape in order to deliver our vision for the good life. This essay from Fred Bahnson was part of drawing my attention to them (along with the video essay from National Geographic).
The documentary opens with the line:
“In Ethiopian Orthodox teaching, a church, to be a church, should be enveloped by a forest. It should resemble the garden of Eden.”
These forests have protected Ethiopian biodiversity from being eradicated by agricultural dominion, Bahnson’s essay, which touches on the research of Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, who studies the forests as his vocation notes:
“Until roughly a hundred years ago, Ethiopia’s northern highlands were one continuous forest, but over time that forest has been continually bisected, eaten up by agriculture and the pressures of a growing population. Now the entire region has become a dry hinterland taken over almost entirely by farm fields. From the air it looks similar to Haiti. Less than three percent of primary forest remains. And nearly all of that three percent, Alemayehu discovered, was only found in forests protected by the church.”
There’s something quite ‘new Edeny‘ about these forests; and while Ethiopian Orthodox Spirituality doesn’t always resonate with my theological framework; a significant part of how I approach theology is rooted in my disenchanted, western, view of the world. Part of technology’s formative effect is ‘disenchantment’ — the idea that technology isn’t just like magic, but is magic in its truest form, because other belief in magic just expresses desires we haven’t yet found technological solutions for.
“Fred Bahnson, who wrote the essay that became the documentary on the Ethiopian church forests, thinks of them as arks, or “tiny green vessels sailing over a barren sea of brown”. Deploying the metaphor globally to image our contested and fragile future, he writes, “We will need many more arks like them … tens of thousands of arks: cultural, biological, spiritual.” … These kinds of initiatives take work. They require nurture. And a strong foundation. The church forests emanate from a belief in the sacred — sacred space worth protecting, and sacred life and the value of every person. The centre enables the whole. The solid protective walls are permeable, in that an open gate welcomes all who want to enter to find refuge and abundant life. They offer a bright sign of hope in northern Ethiopia, and perhaps a symbol of what is possible in our own search for sanctuary and refreshment.”
I draw on both the Church Forest and J.R.R Tolkien in my presentation, struck, again, by not just the ‘Eucastrophe’ bit of On Fairy Stories, but the way it unpacks Tolkien’s whole project — in a world increasingly shaped by dominion through technology, with imaginations fuelled by science fiction, he turned to the purity of the fairy story as a critique of that sort of vision of man; calling for us, instead, to be ‘co-creators’ — who participate in generative imitation of God both in our stories, and in the lives promoted by stories that echo the truths of the Gospel. In a letter unpacking his approach in Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien lays his motivations bare (brazen for a guy who accused his friend C.S Lewis of too much allegory).
“I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of the development of inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.
The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their “magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”
I’d not noticed how much this is true; the good wizards in Middle Earth have a deep affinity with nature, while Saruman and Sauron both employ magic to enslave and destroy — both the natural environment, and the lives of those around them. The Lord of the Rings, then, functions as a critique of finding hope in magic or technology, rather than the eucatastrophe, and the animating belief that all sad things will one day come untrue.
The story that animates us — whether the pursuit of the ‘good words’ that will unite us with our technology, or the good intervention that will save us from the jaws of our machines and the destruction of beastly dominion — sin, and death, and Satan — will shape the way we live now. If the Gospel is true, and the world is a sacred place made to reveal the divine nature and character of God in concert with the Gospel message, coordinated under the rule of the resurrected and resurrecting King Jesus who will return to “make all things new” — in a new Eden — then planting forests that protect biodiversity, and position the church community within the natural world in a way that is more like the elves and less like the orcs, might be ways that we live in anticipation and hope.
Taking up the resurrection appearance of Jesus in the garden in John’s Gospel, and Mary’s meeting ‘The Gardener’ — the new Adam, the man “destined to bring all of creation into order, harmony, and abundance,” Doug says:
“While the day of the final curse-lifting renewal still lies out in our future (Rom 8:19-22), in Christ’s resurrection the age to come has broken into this present age, and the Gardener has already taken up his royal vocation of subduing the earth on God’s behalf. Accordingly, the reborn Gardener of Genesis 2 calls his subjects — the renewed humanity of Genesis 1 — to live as true humans, by living from the first definition, found in Genesis 1-2, of what it means to be human, but especially by living toward the gospel’s vision of what humanity will be in the age to come. With our “ethical eyes” looking back to our origin and forward to our destiny, we are called to live as ambassadors of the New Creation, who give the watching world a foretaste of what life in that kingdom will be like. Surely this should be good news for creation as Christians seek to live the royal, second-Adam life, as God’s gardeners. Yes, Christians may work the earth for human benefit, but we must do so in a protective and caring way that previews and anticipates the great day of renewal when Jesus, the Gardner-King, will finally deliver the natural realm from its bondage to decay and at last transform the whole world into a new and better Eden.”
Ethiopian church forests are a little picture of the possibility of this sort of approach to church; they’re the products of generations of faithful cultivation, and we should probably start now.
In a recent Gospel Coalition Australia article ‘Why You Should Ditch Your Digital Bible,’ Matt Smith made a compelling case for the priority of paper Bibles over the modern technological solution; the digital Bibles we now carry around in our pockets on the screens of our smart phones or tablets.
“But, in consistently choosing them over paper Bibles, we are inadvertently robbing ourselves of the opportunity to store up God’s precious and life-giving word in our hearts, contenting ourselves to sip from the fountain when we could be drinking deeply from it.”
His piece was a thoughtful engagement with an academic discipline sometimes called ‘media ecology.’ Media ecology is the idea that our tools — as part of the physical world (or ecology) we engage with — form us as people, it was pioneered by Marshall McLuhan.
Before the digital explosion, McLuhan predicted that electronic communication would collapse the barriers of space and time and create a “global village.” McLuhan drew on the insights of another scholar, Harold Innis, and his book Empire and Communications. Innis described how empires through history rose and fell based, in part, on how well rulers communicated their imperial vision and so formed their citizens; he saw lots of this boiling down to the technological choices these rulers made.
In the ancient world, you could choose between your messages travelling a long way across space, or lasting for a long time. A statue or inscription was permanently embedded in a place; whereas a verbal messenger could carry a memorised message from one place to another, but if that message was not written down, it lasted for just a short time. Writing on various transportable mediums (papyrus, for example) became a game changing technology, because messages could be carried a lot more easily than big stone tablets, from one end of an empire to another. McLuhan drew on Innis to argue that in communication, content matters, but so does the form we receive it in (“the medium is the message,” he said). Communication choices are ecological; the technology we introduce into our lives forms us.
McLuhan also recognised technological choices actually occur before questions about carving words into rock, or writing in ink on papyrus; writing, even the alphabet, is a technology. When writing was introduced, producing a shift from oral to written transmission of information, people then observed it would have the effects Smith identifies digital bibles have on us moderns. So Plato, quotes Socrates on the danger of writing 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.”
Smith joins a long line of people concerned about the impact technology will have on us as people; and asks good questions about how the forms and things we introduce into our reflections on God’s word, might shape how we receive and are transformed by God’s word. Tim Challies wrote a book on this titled The Next Story, back in 2011, while Nicholas Carr wrote a more generic look at how technology is affecting our ability to think reflectively, and to remember things, in his 2010 work titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
In the present Covid-19 age, we’re learning, perhaps more than ever, that technology disrupts. That our technologies aren’t ‘neutral tools’ but that they shape us as we shape our world with them; zoom fatigue is real, disembodied church mediated to us by screens is different, our ability to have side conversations and monitor body language and make eye contact properly with others limits our ability to connect. Thinking about how we shape the ecosystem that shapes us is an important part of thinking about our formation as people, and for followers of Jesus, how we are shaped as disciples. Our technology habits are part of the disciplines that will disciples us; and as Faith For Exiles a recent book on discipleship in ‘digital Babylon,’ by David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock puts it “screens disciple.”
Screens also disenchant. There’s a romance to tactile and tangible objects; like books, with their paper selection and typesetting, and smells, part of the ‘form’ that forms us as people (even if we don’t notice it). Technologist David Rose wrote a book a few years back titled Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things, where he pitted two visions of the future against one another; a vision where the world is overtaken by interactive black glass services that serve up whatever content we desire; a kind of global village where space and time (and all human limits) are eradicated as we ‘plug in’ — versus a world where tangible objects are given ‘tech powers’ to make them function like tools from the pages of a fantasy novel. He suggested one is more ‘human’ and more aligned with our desires and our embodied interactions with the world. He remembered growing up with a grandfather who had an array of woodworking tools in his shed; one for every occasion, and bemoaned the rise of the one size fits all tool; in part, because of the ecological impact such changes might have on us as people.
I have strong sympathies with his concerns. I read digital books on a kindle rather than an iThing, and I prefer public Bible readings in church from a paper Bible, while I use my phone when in the pew. But this is an area for us to pursue wisdom, not prescription, and not a silver bullet piece of theologically endorsed technology (whether pixel, or ink).
And yet, Smith’s arguments about the reduction of God’s word to pixels on screens — that it enables distraction, limits context, and limits retention — can also be made about every other publishing decision made around God’s word. The way to counter the impacts he observes might not simply be about the best technology, technique, or medium, but the ecology around those mediums.
His argument about context can also be mounted in a different direction about the decision to compile the Bible, a library of books, into one book — which emphasises the coherent whole at the expense of the 66 individual books. Then there’s the question of ‘which context’ one brings to a passage. Smith defaults to the surrounding passages, but our interpretive context is bigger (and one we bring to page or screen), whether the individual book, or the narrative unity of the whole Bible; centred on Jesus as the Messiah who fulfils the Old Testament in his death, resurrection, and pouring out of the Spirit. It is good to ask how our media decisions frame our reading in any direction, so we might push against that. It’s possible that a hyperlinked Bible connecting you to the Bible’s 63,000 inter-textual references might actually help you appreciate the context better than one that keeps you rooted in one passage.
Martin Luther harnessed the power of the printing press to kickstart the Reformation. He was deliberate in its use; recognising its power remove the authoritative gatekeeper role of a priesthood that kept the word obscure in part by medium decisions. The church kept the Scriptures bound up in hand-transcribed Latin copies. The Reformation was supported by its ecological and technological approach. Printing the Bible, in the vernacular, supported the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Luther chose a technology that supported the re-formation he was hoping to see in people and the church. He chose forms that were not as limited by space and time as those he replaced, and so spread both the Gospel, and the message of the Reformation further and faster than the Catholic church could (and had it adopted the same technology, doing so would undermine its theology). Luther also cared about the physical form of his publications, in a letter complaining that “John the printer is still the same old Johnny,” he says “they print it so poorly, carelessly, and confusedly, to say nothing about the bad types and paper.”
The printed word has a certain sort of formative effect, and part of that comes from a connection to the physical world; part of a decision to read from a paper Bible is an act of resistance, or disruptive witness, against the world of black glass and instant gratification; and we should embrace that to push back against the formative power of screens. But screens — and digital communication — also collapse the limits of space and time; like the alphabet, paper, good Roman roads, and the printing press, they allow the message of the Gospel to be transmitted further and wider and faster than ever before. Smith makes the case that a printed Bible a formative tool. It is. But if we bring an ecological framework to the question of how we access and share the text of the Bible, it’s not our only tool, or always the best one.
The trick with our ecology is to remember that the Bible itself, from start to finish, is not meant to operate in an ecological vacuum. As a communicative act from the divine; an act of Revelation from God, the Bible is relational and is to form part of a broader ecology. For Israel, the Old Testament was received by a community, and created a community with a particular sort of formative ecology; a community that enacted a series of festivals, and liturgical practices, that ate together, that memorised its words, that prayed and sacrificed, that dressed differently to the people on the outside; an interpretive community that lived out the distinctives the Bible called for, and so became a formative community. Operating as a priestly nation; God’s image bearing people revealing his nature and character to the world; God’s images aren’t statues rooted in one part of the empire; they live, breathe, speak, and love.
The New Testament continues this trajectory; but marks an even more substantial act of Revelation. In the New Testament the word that spoke the world into being becomes flesh, and makes his dwelling among us. In the New Testament, authors take advantage of new communication technologies that are available to transmit the message of this word becoming flesh, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, as far across the world as they can; and as people believe the message, it creates a new interpretive community; a new community of people in relationship enacting the message they receive. The church. Whatever form the words of the Bible take in our lives, whether digital or printed or spoken, as we receive them, they come with a broader ecology that forms us. John, who wrote about the word becoming flesh at the start of his Gospels, often, in his written work — a medium decision — acknowledges the limits of that medium because they aren’t fully enfleshed. He says on two occasions “I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink,” he desires to be there in person.
Perhaps the answer Smith is seeking as he employs a hard copy Bible when sitting down to read with students, and encouraging them to do likewise, is not simply in the medium decision he makes about a paper Bible versus a digital one, but in the decision he’s also making to share not only the Gospel, but his life as well, as he reads with others.
Perhaps the biggest problem screens and i-devices contributes to is not the disconnection from the word Smith identifies, but a disconnection from others — perhaps screens serve to individualise us, where the message of the Bible is one that draws us together as a community of priests, called to let the message of Jesus dwell among us richly. But books can do that too.
NOTE: A shorter version of this may or may not appear on the TGC Australia page later this week.
We had our first semi-major technological fails in our digital church experience this morning. A major fail would’ve been an electrocution or some costly equipment blowing up. This was minor league stuff relative to that — there were some issues around audio sharing of a pre-recorded component of our time together. Our service time was certainly not professional or polished this morning; and while I felt a degree of shame and embarrassment (some of our audio issues were a result of me accidentally muting our video when I muted my mic to ask my kids to be quiet), I’m reminding myself of the principles that have us where we are. I’m writing this as catharsis because of how much the tech fails grated on me this morning; and as a reminder that this is the path I think we should be committed to as a church community.
Watching the conversation around my tech-fail mea culpa post on Facebook, and the steady stream of churches and ministers promoting their live streams on my newsfeed has reminded me of the importance of principled decision making in this strange period. As an aside, I reckon close to 95% of the posts on my Facebook feed are churches advertising their online services. My cynical hot take: Facebook finally has a use for church stuff in its algorithm now that it’s the platform for church connectivity and can make some dollars.
I’m not a luddite. I have a smartish home. I have a coffee machine I can turn on with voice commands. My kids are listening to audio books in their bedrooms because I’ve allowed a multi-national surveillance capitalist company (two actually) to have a presence in our home in the form of speakers with built in microphones. Technology always involves trade-offs. Go read some Neil Postman, especially Five Things To Know About Technological Change or about Marshall McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media Effects for more on this (and more on McLuhan’s Tetrad below). But I’m worried that our principles as church leaders in this crisis are perhaps not as well informed as they should be.
This event — the shutting of church buildings and practice of physical distancing — will be disruptive for churches; especially because of how we’re now introducing technology into our ecosystem in new ways (though not totally novel, online churches have existed as concepts and entities for years). This will be potentially disrupt churches in the same way that Uber disrupted the cab industry, and AirBNB the hotel industry. It could also be that we use this disruption to re-invent our practices — but that will either be a principled re-invention or a pragmatic one.
Here are some of the principles, some theological, some practical, and some technological/media ecological that have shaped how I’ve approached this time in our church family.
I’m curious to hear other principles driving other forms or technological methodologies, especially as I think the period ‘disruption’ is going to be forced upon us (rather than the ongoing effect of these changes) is going to stretch on for some months.
Principle 1. Church is the gathered people not an event.
One of the greatest challenges for the church today is a slipping in to the habits of consumerism. We will resist forms of church that have us see church as a service that produces resources for my benefit or consumption.
Principle 2. Pandemics are not a reason to panic.
The universal church, those we are Spiritually connected to by the Holy Spirit and our shared belief in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, and commitment to Jesus as king, has lived through many crises and pandemics, and has actually thrived in such times historically because where others act selfishly it has acted selflessly — followers of Jesus have walked into rather than run away from times like this.
Principle 3. Pandemics are not ideal; nothing about this time has to be perfect. We have to be gentle with each other and have low expectations.
The disruption happening here will mean non ideal experiences of church as we grapple with the very non-ideal experience of life. This isn’t a time for the pursuit of self-improvement and excellence, but for being held together by God and in the hope of the Gospel.
These non-ideal experiences are happening in the midst of a crisis that will take its toll on our community in various ways; economic, emotional, spiritual, need to mean we focus more on grace and relationships than results; and our priorities need to be firmly established and at the heart of our efforts.
Good enough is good enough. Not good enough is also good enough. This is especially true when coupled with principles 6 and 7.
Principle 4. Our priorities in a crisis are set by Jesus. Especially by his clear commands to his disciples.
Our priorities are that we as a church draw closer to God, closer to one another, and so are in a position to better serve our neighbours should the worst case scenario happen. This is how we apply Jesus’ two greatest commandments to this epidemic.
Principle 5. Media (as the plural of ‘medium’) are not neutral. The medium is the message. The forms we choose for church gatherings will be formative (and maybe permanently disruptive).
Screens are a medium or form that typically mediate content to us as consumers — especially now in the age of streaming (eg Netflix). The more our production values and content feels like Netflix the greater the impact of this medium will be on our message.
Because of the legislative framework we’re operating in (and because it’s just the loving thing to do to limit physical interactions in this time) we either have to use screens, or invite households (whether families or other mixed households) to operate alone. We can use screens to distribute content and we can use screens to maintain relationships. How we approach screens will show where our priorities lie here, which will reveal what we think church is and is about.
Principle 6. We will prioritise the relational over the distribution of content via screens.
This isn’t a dichotomy. Content matters. Our unity is built on our shared beliefs, that come from our shared story. But it is also a unity that comes from the very real work of the Holy Spirit who unites us as a community — as a local church and in the universal church. The local church is a particular expression of the Body of Christ; our services can either express something of the body, or give incredible prominence to the visible parts of the body (where Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that the not as visible parts of the body are worthy of the most honour).
In real terms for us this has meant not focusing on technological excellence, or production values, or livestreaming a picture perfect production with multiple cameras and a sound desk. There’s a sacrifice being made in our production quality. We don’t have a flash kids program with content for kids to digest. Instead, our kids church team are having a face-to-face video chat with two groups of kids (older and younger) and inviting the kids to speak to them and to each other in that forum (with two leaders, parental consent, etc for child safety compliance).
We’ve prioritised interactivity on Sundays over a shared downloading of content. I’m pushing us towards meeting just in our Growth Groups some Sundays to enable more people to be directly involved in sharing in the task of the body (Ephesians 4). I’ve ‘preached’ once in the last three weeks (a modified sort of talk, shorter because of screen limitations), another member of our community preached last Sunday, and this week we had a mini-panel where a husband and wife team delivered a pretty great package on Genesis 1 and how we live in a world where the ‘heavens’ and ‘the earth’ are overlapping realities, followed by a Q&A time. Each Sunday we’re spending time in our Growth Groups discussing the passage and talk.
Principle 7. We will bring a social media mentality with a push towards the local village not the global one.
‘Broadcast media’ where a central authority reproduces content to the masses (think Television) is an historical anomaly. It’s time came with the printing press, and the invention of radio and television, and is disappearing with the Internet. Social media is pushing us to peer-to-peer content, changing the nature of authority for good or for ill. It also has the potential to pull us out of the local village and into the global — making us ‘peers’ with people we might never meet. The ‘social media’ disruption of church in the era of “the global village” might serve to annihilate time in the way C.S Lewis said the car annihilated space (meaning we’re less limited to a local area as embodied creatures). This would look like tuning in to church services with a virtual presence that you will never attend with your physical presence. This might be like going on a virtual tour of a museum, gallery, or zoo. It’s very easy to do. But this isn’t a substitute for the local church, even if it is an expression of the global church. It’s also something that can feed our sense that church is a product to consume, that we should make that consumption decision not based on the people God has gathered us together with (locally and in a community that comes together), but based on the quality of content produced (including the quality of the preaching, and the production values/schmickness of the service).
I don’t want church to be a thing you watch from bed in your pyjamas. That is a disruptive norm that will be diabolical beyond this shutdown.
I don’t want church to be a thing you pick to download, from a global smorgasbord of excellent Bible teachers with a high-powered band and schmick AV.
So though we are more dependent on technology, I want to push further away from broadcast style technology (though I did purchase a new microphone to make sure people can hear what we say from our family’s side of our screen). I don’t want church to be a ‘livestream’ or a ‘broadcast’ but a social gathering (which has pushed us towards Zoom, and as much as possible the live delivery of content where we can see each other’s faces and have multiple contributors).
Principle 8. If this period disrupts us I want this disruption to be towards our underlying principles, not away from them, and to be cultural rather than technological.
I’d like to be disrupted towards greater connection with God and his people, towards greater love for neighbours, and to a model of church built on participation not consumption. This means being careful what technology we embrace, and how much we embrace it. Careful to think about how the mediums we use become part of the message we receive; and the forms we adopt become formative.
One place this is a live issue for me is in the discussion that is happening more broadly about whether the sacraments (for Presbyterians that’s baptism and the Lord’s Supper) can happen virtually. I don’t think they can. But I would be happy for us to be disrupted towards a truer priesthood of all believers, and even for this epidemic to disrupt our idea that the ‘household’ is a nuclear, biological, family — that means too many of our community are facing social distancing in physical isolation. I don’t think we can share in the Lord’s Supper via Zoom, theologically speaking, but I do think households can participate in the meal instituted by Jesus, where he is spiritually present as we break bread, at their tables over a meal. It’s interesting that the last (and only) time the Westminster Confession of Faith was amended by the Presbyterian Church of Australia was around the emergency conditions of a World War in order to allow non-ministers to conduct the Lord’s Supper… That’s good and lasting disruption right there.
Marshall McLuhan’s Media Tetrad is this model that says whenever a new technology or medium is introduced into a system it impacts that system in four directions.
It enhances some capacity we have (so video calls allow us to see into places where we are not). It makes some other technology obsolete (the way that emails made letters much less necessary, and video calls make telephone calls essentially obsolete). It retrieves a capacity we might previously have lost (so video calls add, for example, a face to face dynamic and non-verbal communication cues, where print and telephone removed those). And it reverses something when pushed to its natural limits, as in, it ultimately pulls us away from a previous norm (so video calls taken to an absolute might give way to virtual reality and the idea that we don’t need a bodily presence anywhere to do anything real.
There are real risks for churches here if there is a technological disruption to what we think church is, based on how we practice church. We might enhance how easy it is to go to/consume church because we can now watch it from bed in the comfort of our pyjamas, without having to truly see other people, or enhance some ability to produce higher quality stuff (because we can pre-record, edit, and post-produce). We might retrieve participation of more than just professionals through some technology choices (like using Zoom), we might even see one another (digitally) much more often in this period than we once met in the flesh. But in the ‘reversal’ that is really where the disruptive power of technology kicks in, we might convince ourselves that these other changes are good, both pragmatically and experientially. That they, when coupled with the conditions of toxic churchianity, expand our reach, grow our platform, and make our consumption more frictionless, and charting the way back to messy, embodied, local church might be more difficult than we think.
I’d like our church community to emerge from this healthy; having loved God, loved one another, and loved our neighbours well, and having pushed further into a culture (structures and practices) that means that our ‘mediums’ support our message (the Gospel). We’ve often talked about being a church of small groups, not with small groups. I’d like that to become real. I’d like to decentralise power/control from me and my voice, to a community that genuinely acts as the body of Christ (recognising that I, and others, have been appointed by God, and by our community, to have particular roles in the life of that community). I’d like us to be practicing the spiritual disciplines, including rest and play. I’d like us to be doing this as a way of pushing back against the prevailing values of our culture and the way they have infected the church; the way we’ve co-opted forms and solutions from the world of business and entertainment so reflexively, the seriousness of modern life, our truncated moral imaginations that lead us to pragmatic rather than principled solutions to problems (utility over virtue), and the disenchanted ‘secular’ frame we live in which is, in part, created by the ecological impacts of technology and the way that human ‘technique’ has become our solution to any dilemma, in the absence of prayer, and the way technology dominates our social imaginary so that we think about reality through a technological grid — expressed through our dependence on technology, and our imagined solutions to this period being largely technological are symptoms of this, and that goes for how we’ve jumped to the solve problem of not being able to meet together as the church. Technology is the architecture of our action and our belief; it’s forming us as we form it). We desperately need disruption and a push of the reset button. Note: My friend Arthur wrote this Twitter thread the other day outlining just how much stepping out of ‘Babylon’ is required in order for us to see the way Christianity does have something profound to say about the crisis moment being revealed in the midst of this pandemic. What I’m calling ‘toxic churchianity’ is really just the impact of what he calls Babylon on church culture. That needs disruption so that we can be disruptive.
So I’ll take messy church with technology glitches that we’re all experiencing simultaneously, in a weird ‘meeting’ on Zoom broadcast from our lounge room while the kids are going nuts, over a schmick, faultless, production beamed, or streamed, into loungerooms, or shared in online ‘watch parties’ experienced asynchronously, because though I’m praying disruption happens for the church, in this moment, I’m hoping the disruption will push us back towards our principles, not into something disfigured and deforming.
At the same time, I’ve been watching churches in Australia (mine included) embracing the technological solution of livestreaming services to help people stay away and not miss out. Technology can be great; but long time readers will know that I’ve often argued (following Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman) that technology isn’t neutral. Technology is ecological; the technologies we introduce to the ecosystems of our lives and relationships change our lives and relationships — sometimes in ways we don’t notice. I think livestreaming is a good temporary solution — to aid people in making the decision to self-isolate from churches now, but I don’t think it is a good long term solution — either beyond the pandemic, or in an extended shutdown through the Aussie flu season.
So here’s two further thoughts on church during the pandemic.
Shut large (and even medium) gatherings earlier than the government tells you to to flatten the curve, and keep Christians healthy for acts of service in the community.
Don’t live stream a service the whole way through a long shutdown because of a theological commitment to church being a gathering of people (not an event where people come together to consume the teachings of a priest).
Here’s a good place to start figuring out how to live in a world affected by pandemic conditions.
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
1 Peter 2:12-14
Peter, up front, reminds us that our patterns of life aren’t those from the world — they aren’t sinful desires — but a world lived as people removed from the ways of the world because we are no longer exiled from God. As God’s people we’re meant to live observable good lives; lives that mark us out as different to our neighbours (otherwise, what’s the difference that makes them ‘such good lives’ not just normal ones). And we’re to submit to human authorities (there are versions of that submission that will look more like martyrdom at their hands than obedience).
I read this morning that the government is considering reducing the number of people gathered in static events from 500 to 100. This will be a threshold moment for lots of Aussie churches — but we shouldn’t be waiting. Waiting would be a normal good life, not a remarkably good life. Waiting would also embrace a particular pattern of life that is motivating the decisions being made about shut downs.
Flattening the curve requires early action — and while it’s been great seeing lots of churches taking action around live streaming and making hygiene a priority on Sundays, there are still quite a few churches committed to soldiering on through the virus. This assumes that the best way for us to soldier on, as the church, through the crisis, is to hold Sunday gatherings that bring an entire church community together. Rather than proactively loving our neighbours by staying away from each other and minimising disease.
The government has a particular view of human flourishing that will form the basis of its decision making about social distancing measures. It is not solely interested in the medical health of people. It is interested in economic flourising. Decisions to delay social distancing measures are constantly being weighed up against economic imperatives (decisions about who should be treated in publicly funded hospitals are weighed up against the same measures, ultimately, and perhaps especially in the sort of crisis Italy finds itself in). Approaching the issue in economic terms — with the health crisis assessed based on its financial impact (see Trump, Donald, ‘Response to the Corona Virus’ in future encyclopaedias) will have us asking questions and making calculations like the one asked in The Australian newspaper today:
It’s unedifying but governments do put monetary values on human life, implicitly. That’s why we don’t have double the number of ambulances or hospitals — because the additional people that would be saved aren’t deemed worth the diversion of resources from other things. State and federal governments spend about one sixth of GDP keeping us healthy and safe. A 2014 Australian government document put the “statistical value” of a life at $4.2m, and the value of a year of life at $182,000. “The value of statistical life is most appropriately measured by estimating how much society is willing to pay to reduce the risk of death,” it stated.
If 1000 more people died but we avoid a 1930s-style depression, would it be worth it? It’s a hypothetical question because governments can’t know how effective their health measures are in advance. There’s no neat menu of policy options and trade-offs.
Hospitals have a particular measure of human flourishing too (medical health), my last post touched on the idea that Christians kickstarted hospitals by caring for vulnerable people other medical professionals wouldn’t touch for both medical and economic reasons (these non-Christian doctors in the Roman Empire would only try to heal those who might survive, pay, and benefit their careers).
These aren’t the questions we ask in framing our response. Our questions are something more like: “what is the most loving thing we might do that show we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves”?
Our metric as churches is not predominantly economic or medical/physical flourishing — though because we believe people are embodied creatures, our vision of human flourishing includes the economic and the physical. Our vision extends to the mental and spiritual wellbeing, and sees worldly wealth and the value of human lives in different terms to a state that ultimately will make all pandemic decisions based on utility; based on limiting harm but defining that harm as a balance between the economic and the physical. We believe lives have value because people are made in the image of God, with a created vocation to represent his life, nature, and character in the world he made. We don’t assess flourishing in purely material terms; and especially not with economic ones on top of our hierarchy. In an age of radical individualism, and a nation built on individual freedoms, Christians also have good reason to believe that community, and relationships, are part of human flourishing. I’d suggest our hierarchy should put the Spiritual first, the physical next, and while the economic is important, it’s certainly not the priority for our gatherings (like it might be for schools and workplaces), and then I’d put our responsibility to others above self-interest in a decision making matrix (ala Philippians 2).
We have a very different economics built on our very different picture of flourishing (do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven… if your neighbour asks for your cloak, give them your shirt as well… that sort of thing… you know, the teachings of Jesus). Our ultimate picture of the flourishing life is one connected to God, by his Spirit, through Jesus, participating in the renewal of all things — seeking, as Crouch said, ‘shalom’ — life in God’s peace; his kingdom; in relationship with him.
We also have a different ethical framework to the ethical framework government applies. Christian ethics are not utilitarian but are virtuous, that we are called to make the right decisions based on the right thing to do — based on questions of virtue and character rather than predominantly about results on some bottom line or other; that we act as people shaped by love of God, and love for neighbour.
We should do the loving thing; not the least disruptive thing. So, we are to love sacrificially, and not find our value in our own physical or economic health, but instead are to trust God to provide, and have faith the the hope of the Gospel is real. While governments (rightly) have a role to play in determining shutdown parameters that will effect the economy, the education system, and the health system (and all of those inter-relate, and all of them are impacted by government decision making), our parameters for deciding what to do about how we operate as churches are very different, and we should act quicker because our priorities are different.
Now, I can see a case to be made, from a Christian framework that is a little more gnostic than I’m suggesting — where the health of the soul trumps all other forms of flourishing, that might suggest we keep doing Sunday church services come hell, or come highwater, trusting that God will work through the proclamation of his word. But I don’t think this rightly values the embodied nature of human life — our own wellbeing, or that of our neighbours. Not looking after your own health would be a way of ‘loving your neighbour as you love yourself’ — that is to say, a not very wise or sustainable way. And it would also be not a great witness to the very physical nature of the kingdom of God; the one that culminates in a physical new creation where we have physical resurrection bodies, brought about by the physical incarnation of Jesus into a human body; that same Jesus who cared for the physical needs of those he met and healed as a picture of their spiritual needs (the same loving kindness that motivated the beginning of public hospitals in the western world).
If flattening the curve is the best way to love our neighbours (wisely balancing economic, physical, and spiritual health) then we should model not putting the economy first and take steps to stay ahead of the curve. We should do the right thing not out of economic imperatives, but a fuller sense of human flourishing. This is why I think churches should stop holding big, Sunday, gatherings before the government directs us to, but that we should ensure that people are still having their spiritual well being, and need for community, met. If our priority is living and proclaiming the Gospel — and the priorities of the kingdom — in the midst of a crisis, I don’t think our most effective way to achieve that is to hold big gatherings that appear to be unloving (see the discussion around Hillsong’s conference on Twitter, for example). We have an opportunity to display the values of the kingdom in how we participate in the world during this crisis; with lives marked by sacrificial love for others and different priorities, and words soaked in the hope of the Gospel. While I’d hope these are markers of our gatherings on Sundays at “church” every week, they don’t exclusively have to happen there.
Live streaming a service is a great interim measure to flatten the curve and transition towards a social distancing period, but I don’t think it’s a very good medium term solution (because it is a terrible long term replacement for church). Live streaming is probably, I’d say, better than continuing to meet, either disregarding government directives or waiting until the last minute and taking no initiative in flattening the curve.
“Church” by its nature is the gathered people of God — a church is an expression of the body of Jesus; there’s an embodied, incarnational, nature of church that is fundamental to existing as that gathered community in the world. Gathering is important. Gathering to encourage and equip one another, and, in my Presbyterian context, for the ministry of word and sacrament, to take place is important. Andy Crouch’s excellent piece made the point that gathering for corporate worship is fundamental to a Christian view of human flourishing. I think he’s right. But (despite my Presbyterian heritage, and the Westminster Confession’s position on worship), I don’t think ‘corporate worship’ is located in the Sunday service, but in us Christians together (you plural) offering ourselves as a living sacrifice. We can do that in all sorts of expressions of a gathering. So I find myself with the theological convictions that the body of Christ is expressed in physical gatherings, where people are using their spiritual gifts to sacrificially love and serve one another (and together serve outsiders) as an expression of God’s presence in us by his Spirit, and that we meet ‘in Jesus name’ through the ministry of the word and sacrament (the proclamation of the Gospel, and our participation in it). You can’t really do most of this digitally. It’d be a really bad idea for us to establish this as an option that becomes either a norm, or a desirable/more convenient alternative. Call me an idealist, but I believe a crisis is exactly the time to turn to theological principles, and even push further towards them, rather than to find convenient solutions that don’t integrate with those principles. ‘Digital church’ isn’t actually a thing; and most churches have alternative structures that are closer to the nature of church than anything where teaching from someone outside a gathering is mediated by a screen.
If this shutdown period goes beyond Easter, I’ll be suggesting that we cease live streaming a centralised service with a talk from me (or another professional preacher) at that point, and that as more extreme social distancing measures kick in (the President of the U.S.A today asked people to limit meetings in the states to 10 people), we turn our energies and efforts to the small churches we already have in our midst (in most communities); that we change the dynamic of at least some gatherings of our small groups so that they actually function as small churches. If we’re going to establish a new normal through this period, let’s establish one that might see people growing in equipping one another for works of service (Ephesians 4), rather than one of people being fed content via screens.
If we are limited (or self-limiting) to gatherings of ten people, then I will be encouraging our small groups to function as churches who meet together to do what we would normally do on a Sunday in their small groups, but who also look beyond their own needs to serve others their community is connected to. In our system, this would mean that I would visit groups on a rotating basis to share the Lord’s Supper (probably a few times in a longish shut down), or that we get the appropriate permissions for others to conduct those sacraments.
It would mean growth groups take responsibility for the preaching of the word, and for figuring out what format that takes. There are plenty of church traditions where this is the norm, but one way that I would see us continuing as a larger church, who might come back together, is that I’d be encouraging our leaders to be teaching through the same material, and I’d meet with them during the week to help them prepare a church service. I’d rather reinforce that church is about the gathered people of God, equipping one another through works of service and through the ministry of the word and sacrament in the flesh than creating (or reinforcing) a consumer mentality that sees content from a professional preacher as the thing we come to receive when we attend church. Growth Groups might then invite members who are stuck in isolation or sick to stream in, virtually, to their smaller community, using the technology we’ve established in our preparations.
Livestreaming, for us, will take the edge off missing out on church while we are still meeting on Sundays, but it’s not going to be our solution beyond that point. I suspect this Sunday, or the next, will be our last services held or live streamed with a skeleton crew for some time, and that’s what I’m working towards. And I think on the whole, that’ll be a good thing.
Alan Noble is one of the founders of Christ and Pop Culture; a few years ago I decided to throw some dollars at a subscription to Christ and Pop Culture because I think good content is worth paying money for, and I wanted to support the approach he, and the stable of writers who produce content for the site, take to cultural artefacts. I made this decision without knowing that it came with a new digital community — access to a forum where nuanced discussions are celebrated and disagreement is predominantly civil. I’ve been part of this online community since, and have benefited from the wisdom of the community but also from the first hand insight it has provided to the growing platforms of its founders, and contributors, particularly Alan. His voice during the Trump election was profound (especially this piece), and I still think this piece on lust and a theology of beauty is exceptionally pastorally helpful (I link to it often).
His book Disruptive Witness has been on my ‘must read’ list for a very long time; its seemingly endless ‘pre-release’ whet my appetite back when he published this piece on the ‘disruptive witness of art‘ last year; long time readers will know I’ve played a little bit with the idea of ‘disruption’ off the back of Paul’s appearance in Ephesus in Acts 19 — where Paul causes a ‘great disturbance’ to the idol-worshipping status quo by hollowing out the value of the idol market; I’ve suggested a Christian ‘political theology’ should be built around the idea of challenging and disturbing ‘beastly’ idolatrous regimes (mostly just channeling Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity). The Gospel should disturb and disrupt. It should invert and ‘crucify’ our sinful, power-hungry, self interested, defaults both individually and corporately. The challenge for us as we seek to ‘disrupt’ the world we live in is that we face the twin obstacles of ‘the secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’; Alan’s book brings together these diagnoses and proposes a series of solutions — practices — for Christians as individuals, the church, and in culture.
Disruptive Witness applies James K.A Smith’s vision of Christian formation (from his Cultural Liturgies trilogy) to Noble’s diagnosis of the present age; which is Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ diagnosis paired with Noble’s articulation of what one might call ‘the age of distraction’. The particular elements of Taylor’s work that he draws on, beyond the ‘immanent frame’ we now live in where belief in the supernatural is contested more than in previous ages and the ‘buffered self’ that comes with it (where we view ourselves as individuals cut off from some transcendent source of meaning or being), are Taylor’s insights about where that leaves us individuals in a quest for meaning and identity (unpacked more in his less cited work Sources of the Self). If we no longer find meaning external to ourselves we start seeking meaning from within (think every recent Disney movie). We’re left constructing our identity not from a relationship with a creator, or with the supernatural, but with the various ‘immanent’ things we adopt and cling to — we turn to the marketplace of ideas to define ourselves authentically. As Noble says (summarising Taylor):
“So the quest for authenticity has become a central narrative of the contemporary West. To be fully human, we must discover who we are, actualize our identity, express ourselves, be true to ourselves, and so on.”
Noble’s challenge is for those of us who find our identity in Christ, and so through a connection to the transcendent, to think carefully about how we live and act in our witness to this reality so that we aren’t presenting Christianity as one ‘market’ solution; one ‘identity’ option amongst the smorgasbord of other options on the table (especially the digital table). He identifies several challenges in the digital age — our inability to escape distraction prime among them; I read this book on my kindle while driving through outback Australia — even with very sporadic connectivity I still found myself habitually opening my phone to look for a signal, and being drawn away from concentrating on the book and these thoughts at every available opportunity. His diagnosis was convicting and clear; and his synthesis of the ‘secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’ is worth meditating on, especially when it comes to how it shapes our life and witness.
The challenge of identities that are shaped by the pursuit of some internal desire — where those desires shift as we change circumstances and as the objects of our desire disappoint or enslave — in an age of distraction — is that we don’t give ourselves the time and space to put down deep roots when it comes to identity and conviction. We don’t make space for ‘slow, careful, introspection’ of the sort required for deep transformation. Our practices mitigate against that. Or, as Noble says:
“The habits we adopt form our desires, which drive our beliefs. When those habits form desires for immediacy, superficiality, continual engagement, and instant gratification, we should expect our beliefs to reflect these desires. The content of our beliefs will be formed by our habits, but so will the nature of our beliefs.”
Briefly, as a ‘distraction’ from the main thrust of this review, and simply because I loved this part of the book so much I couldn’t let it go unrecognised — the implications of contested, fragmented, and distracted identity formation, namely that most individuals live out or ‘perform’ inherently contradictory ‘identities’ for a ‘worldview’ approach of reducing people to a certain sort of outlook on the world are worth considering. Noble suggests ‘worldview’ approaches don’t grapple with reality as experienced by individuals (as Jamie Smith suggests they don’t grapple with the way people are shaped/formed — more by love and practices rather than by deliberate ‘intellectual’ conviction).
“I contend that in practice worldview studies lack explanatory power and often misinterpret people. This is increasingly true today when the fundamental contestedness of all belief and the tendency toward thin belief have conspired to incline us to form eclectic mixes of belief, something we are often quite proud of because it separates us as individuals: I may take a bit of Marxist economics, a conservative view on family and sex and virtues, a modern empirical view of the natural world, a view of nature as raw material for human use, libertarian politics (except on economics), and then undergird it all with a Reformed faith. Would such a worldview be coherent?”
He calls for a pattern of living that doesn’t add more noise to the noisy world, but instead acts as a disruptive signal that pulls people from distraction for long enough to invite them to look beyond the buffered default. Where his diagnosis bites hard; and the platform from which he builds the second half of the book, comes when he turns his gaze to how churches have adopted the rules of the age without thinking about how the mediums shape our message.
“Even evangelicals who spurn seeker-friendly church outreach and “relevant” evangelism heed Paul’s example of being “all things to all people” in other ways (1 Corinthians 9:22), and in a culture of sound bites, viral videos, and hashtags, this regularly involves adopting the media-rich practices that so deeply shape our culture. But in developing our own viral images and mobile apps to reach connected readers, we risk contributing to the clutter and distraction of modern life rather than helping to lift our neighbours out of it. Even more concerning, by adopting these ephemeral cultural expressions, we may signal to our neighbours that Christianity is merely another consumer preference in the endless sea of preferences we use to define ourselves as individuals.”
As I read that particular paragraph I was able to put words to something I’d been thinking as I’ve explored what a Christian aesthetic might look like recently; if we take 1 Corinthians 9 as a call to imitate culture in order to be all things to all people, rather than to understand the culture such that we appropriately incarnate the message of Jesus in the culture, the danger isn’t just what Noble identifies here, but that we’re trapped in a mode of always being a derivative ‘poorer cousin’ rather than shaping the culture we have embedded in by innovating (and this is the problem most of us intuitively recognise with contemporary Christian music). 1 Corinthians 9 is one of the most formative passages in how I understand the role of the church; but somehow it always ends up looking like being five years behind the culture stylistically, a lack of critical media-literacy when it comes to how the medium is the message, and very rarely like Paul’s application of his own principles in the book of Acts — where he engages with poets and philosophers in speaking to the Areaopagus, but doesn’t make little silver statues of Jesus when disrupting Ephesus and its media practices.
“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.”
If we uncritically adopt technological or media practices without paying heed to these impacts then we’re in danger of losing control of our communication to the technological mediums we adopt; and having the ‘myth’ at the heart of that technology obliterate what it is we are seeking to communicate. We’re more likely to be co-opted by the world than disruptive. Postman also sounds this warning as he unpacks that fifth point:
“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.”
Noble frames the warning this way, alongside this challenge:
“…the church is often tempted to look at popular communication in culture and mimic it with a Christian message. And while mimicking the methods of communication in wider culture can sometimes be valuable, it can also unintentionally signal to readers that Christianity is just like all these other ideas. The challenge for Christians in our time is to speak of the gospel in a way that unsettles listeners, that conveys the transcendence of God, that provokes contemplation and reflection, and that reveals the stark givenness of reality.”
Resisting this effect and taking up this challenge is at the heart of Disruptive Witness; the book offers strategies and practices for resistance so that we can instead be shaped by the Gospel in order to bear witness to it not as one ‘identity’ to adopt amongst or in competition with others; but as an identity we are adopted into by God as he works in us by the Spirit through our union with Jesus.
“The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early twenty-first century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.”
Noble turns from diagnosis to prescribing treatments in the second half of the work; it’s here that he puts down Taylor and picks up Jamie Smith as a conversation partner. The second section of the book is divided between ‘disruptive personal habits,’ ‘disruptive church practices,’ and ‘disruptive cultural participation.’
“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence. At the level of the church, we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialise our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God. Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.”
On the personal front, Noble recommends adopting particular spiritual disciplines that push back against a hyper-connected age (and Mike Cosper’s Recapturing Wonder makes a really nice companion piece for this section) — while recommendations around keeping a sabbath and deliberately saying (and meaning) grace before a meal (especially in public) are refreshingly framed around formation for our good rather than legalism, the habit that really ‘sang’ for me was the development of an aesthetic life and the practice of what Noble calls ‘the double movement’.
“Simply put, the double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbour. Such a practice challenges the secular assumption of a closed, materialist universe. It shifts our focus away from expressing our identity and toward glorifying God, and it lifts our attention to a telos beyond ourselves and our immediate entertainment.”
This is simply an attempt to habituate Paul’s statement about creation in 1 Timothy 4 (“everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer”). Noble gives several examples of how this ‘double movement’ might come into play (including one articulated in his piece on lust linked above); but at the heart of the ‘double movement’ and personal disruption is the development of a properly-ordered appreciation of beauty; particularly to see the ‘allusive’ quality of beauty in this world — that it always points to something beyond itself (think C.S Lewis’ The Weight of Glory). Where Noble goes with ‘allusiveness’ and aesthetics is the reason this book will be on the list of books I work through with people for years to come; alongside Smith’s You Are What You Love.
A couple of years ago I interviewed Smith for Eternity News about You Are What You Love — which is a great summary volume of his bigger trilogy — and there are a couple of things he said in that interview that are useful in unpacking some of the implications of Disruptive Witness, and form some of my critique of both Smith and Noble’s work (though to be clear, there’s much more that I affirm). Here’s a nice summary of Smith’s framework, that is something like the backbone of what Disruptive Witness suggests as a model for our life together as Christians.
“In You Are What You Love, I suggest that the forms of Christianity that will most effectively tap into and speak to people’s enduring hunger for the sacred will be forms of what we might call “ancient” or enchanted Christianity – sacramental Christianity that is tactile, embodied, material, “catholic” (though not necessarily “Roman”). That’s why I suggest that the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.”
Smith, like Noble, sees the arts as an avenue for Christians to avoid being formed by the secular age and its rival ‘liturgies’ (like a liturgy of technological distraction), and the best bits of Disruptive Witness are the bits that go beyond Smith’s thinking here, or that unpack it to the point of supplying and suggesting practices that might form part of a disruptive ‘liturgy’ (when Smith and Noble talk ‘liturgy’ they mean habits oriented towards a certain sort of formation of people, shaped by a vision of the ‘good’ or ‘full’ human life — so how we live together as the church is always liturgical, but so too is how a shopping centre or social media platform is set up to shape us in particular ways). Here’s Smith again:
“I think the arts are a big piece of this – both visual arts and literature. The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.
But good art – art that is allusive, oblique, suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.”
Note that Smith too centres on ‘art that is allusive’ as part of what might blow us out of the ‘secular age’ paradigm; Noble expands on the aesthetic life and how art might form part of our witness in the ‘disruptive cultural participation’ section of the book too, but before we conclude there, the section on ‘disruptive church practices’ is where my main disagreements lie; and not necessarily for the reasons that might seem obvious upon reading his critique of modern church practices (that sound very much like the practices of my church).
“If the challenge of bearing witness in a distracted, secular age is that buffered people struggle to recognize the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, then our first task is to ensure that we are not inadvertently helping to obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it. I have in mind here everything from church signs to Christian T-shirts to the setup of our church stages and pulpits. As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see the same trends at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and TED Talk than a sacred event. High-quality video clips interrupt the sermon. The pastor paces the stage with a headset mic, skillfully weaving facts, stories, and dramatic pauses. The young, fashionably dressed worship band puts on a performance at center stage. The lighting and volume make it clear who the congregation should be paying attention to. Each element of the service alludes to bits of popular culture that draw the audience in. The cumulative effect is to give the impression that the Christian faith is something akin to a good motivational conference.”
Noble unpacks some of these ‘media’ choices to make his point, and while he doesn’t make a blanket statement that anything technological or ‘worldly’ is bad, he does call for some serious discernment about how to balance a desire to be ‘all things to all people’ in our communication, with the danger that our message will lose its distinctive call. It’s a sort of ‘media literacy’ I hope continues to reform the practices of the church, for the reasons he identifies.
“The way we speak, write, and visually depict our faith has a serious effect on the way others conceive of the nature of faith. Words like sin, redemption, guilt, and grace are tied up with the rhetorical shape we give them. And if that shape takes its source from a secular marketplace, we can expect the words to be heard as part of that marketplace.”
My problem is with the solutions he prescribes; and they’re the same problems I have with the same solutions prescribed by Smith. I am all for looking beyond the practices we might adopt from the age we live in — the ‘distracted age’ or the dis-enchanted ‘secular age’ that will see us not being ‘conformed to the patterns of this world,’ but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I am all for that involving a ‘looking backwards’ to ages that had different pressures and patterns, and to the practices of faithful Christians in those times; but I’m wary of prescriptions that don’t carefully consider how those forms, too, were a product of their own time and place.
There’s a trend in Christian publishing at the moment amongst authors grappling with how to bear witness in a changing landscape to find a solution from some point in church history and to seek to replicate it rather than to be poorly imitating the culture around us; that’s the Benedict Option with its turn to monasticism, and Smith with his return to medieval practices (which came from a time where the ‘backcloth’ of life was not secular but shot through with supernatural meaning — as described in C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image). Noble isn’t quite so keen to normalise the ‘cathedral’ experience as some of Smith’s writing, but I’m yet to be convinced that the sort of liturgy he outlines pre-dates the Medieval church (there are certainly elements of liturgy of the sort Noble suggests in the descriptions of church gatherings in The First Apology of Justin Martyr. I’m also not sure any traditional liturgy is devoid of certain forms from the age they emerged in. Like monasticism before it, medieval Christianity assumed certain categories, functioned in a particular social and physical location (at the centre of the town square), in a certain sort of architecture (a cruciform building centred on the altar) — the forms of liturgy developed in those cultural ages reflected assumptions no longer true in our age, such that a return to those forms, even if it pushes us beyond our cultural defaults (particularly distracted individualism and the self-centred pursuit of piecemeal ‘authentic’ experiences) might solve some problems without necessarily being the panacea we hope for; if we’re going to look for ‘ages’ to draw practices from, my contention is still that our present experience as Christians will increasingly more closely reflect the experiences of Christians pre-Christendom, whether that’s outside the west, or pre-Constantine. I’m not sure, for example, practices and church services built around available public space will survive and thrive, whereas a return to ‘family’ life like that found in the New Testament church might push back against some of the present cultural concerns. While I’m convinced by Smith (and Noble, and Augustine) that liturgy is important (and indeed inevitable) for formation, I’m also not sure we should be prescriptive and ancient when it comes to shaping a liturgy rather than imaginatively seeking to create disruptive practices within certain parameters, confident in the Spirit transforming us, looking both backwards to the richness of our tradition, sideways to the de-formative practices and assumptions of our present age, and forwards to the new creation while being mindful of things like media ecology and the importance of form. I’m not sure the Medieval Church had it right in terms of disruptive practices, coming as it did before a decline (and before the ‘secular age’), but I’m reasonably confident that the early church radically re-shaped the western world. I’m more inclined to consider practices outlined in something like Acts 2, Justin Martyr’s apology, and the Epistle to Diognetus than other more recent ‘traditions’. While Noble has a quick dig at our modern obsession with personality type understandings of our humanity (including Myers-Briggs), and while I enjoyed that — I can’t help but think that like Smith, he might not avoid prescribing an approach to liturgy shaped by a certain sort of personal preference (something I explored elsewhere).
That critique aside, the section on disruptive cultural participation is my favourite — and is reflected in Noble’s web project Christ and Pop Culture at its best. Part of Noble’s diagnosis of the world we live in is that most people are constructing their sense of ‘fulness’ or the good life through stories. We’re seeking distraction and affirmation in stories. We seek communities that affirm those stories. One of the solutions then, to disrupting people, is to change the story by embracing and challenging the stories in our culture, to see stories as ‘allusive’ opportunities for both a ‘double movement’ on our part, but to invite others to consider that move too — the move from secular ‘immanence’ to connecting with the transcendent God.
“When Christians interpret, critique, and discuss stories with our neighbours, we can model a contemplative approach that promotes self-reflection and honesty, inviting empathy rather than promoting the detached rationalism of the buffered self. We can offer interpretations that affirm and account for our longings for forms of beauty, goodness, order, and love that find their being beyond the immanent frame.”
This comes with an important ‘how-not-to’ as well; something I’ve always loved about the way Christ and Pop Culture deals with art (and why I threw some money their way).
I am not recommending that we participate in stories in order to find allegories for Christ or spiritual truths. This method doesn’t take the world of the story seriously; it treats the story as a prop. Instead, we should consider what the story says about life and explore its truth in relation to our experience… The correct posture for Christians approaching a story is one of humility, charity, and a desire to know.
The way the book explores our presence in and explanation of tragedy both in art-as-story and in life-as-story is a beautiful fleshing out of how ‘disruption’ isn’t always un-settling or disturbing for our neighbours, but instead is the blessing that comes as we embody the story of Jesus in the world for the sake of others — a disruptive witness indeed.
“It is this kind of witness that we are called to bear in the world today—a witness that defies secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbours from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) God, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return.”
“Therefore, let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel.” — Martin Luther, Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants
When Luther, the Reformer, went head to head with the church establishment and won (at least in Germany); he accidentally-on-purpose became the establishment. I’m not totally sure he was ready for the power or responsibility; most of the stuff he’s infamous for, rather than famous for, came after he’d replaced the Catholic Church as the authority.
Luther’s ideas, particularly the ‘priesthood of all believers’ challenged the establishment beyond simply the power of the church; his use of the printing press as a ‘democratising’ platform that gave a ‘priestly’ voice to anybody with an idea, which undermined the power structures within the church filtered out beyond these structures and into the political realm; where power was certainly not democratic. The political power Luther was relying on for the protection of his reforms was not democratic… and the Reformation correlated with (it’s hard to say it directly caused) a peasant revolt in Germany. Luther didn’t want to lose what he had worked to establish, so he wrote pretty vehemently Against the Murderous, Thieving, Hordes of Peasants. The irony here is that the same reforming impulse that saw him challenge the established church, was driving these peasants, and in a later justification of the harshness of this first missive, he doubled down, saying “a rebel is not worth rational arguments, for he does not accept them. You have to answer people like that with a fist, until the sweat drips off their noses…”
Which is almost precisely what the church wanted to do to him… and here he is backing those who use power, possibly those who abuse power, with a theological justification, saying Christians should “suffer injustice, not to seize the sword and take to violence”… Luther added the authority of his voice against the cause of reform elsewhere… political reform. He was a certain sort of establishment… Then people within the Reformation movement started to disagree with each other and using the mechanisms of the new media technology at their disposal (the printing press) to publish against one another, and things got a bit worse (so Luther called Zwingli his ‘Judas’ after he and a bloke named Carlstadt started publishing pamphlets against him and then things got really ugly) and it was clear that in some ways Luther viewed himself as the new church establishment in Germany. He’d reformed and ‘democratised’ the church; but had maintained some of the institutions and power dynamics of the church establishment he replaced.
Questions of authority are vexing amidst questions of reform; especially when new media technologies give new power to voices that don’t want to conserve the status quo, or establishment, but challenge it. So in all the conversation around questions of authority and the blogosphere; conversations about something like a new technology driven reformation, in conversations about how we, the church, approach publishing/teaching on the web, we need to ask: what are we going to replace the establishment with? What will the new establishment be? How will it be different? Who will it marginalise even as it empowers others who have been marginalised?
Social media is a ‘new media technology’ — and it’s really where the democratising power of the Internet is finally starting to bite into establishments that are less democratic. In the analogy with the peasant’s revolt (or any revolution aimed at democracy) the traditional establishment media represents a concentration of power and influence in the hands of the few; the aristocracy (the company owners) and their nobles (the journalists). While this is a follow up to my last post which is about the state of the Christian blogosphere and the question of ‘authority’ in this new media landscape and the social media lead reformation, there’s an analogy to consider between how social media is changing church power structures, and how it is changing establishments outside the church, particularly in the media. Traditional media empires are falling to pieces (eg Fairfax) because they can no longer profit in this new landscape; they have been disrupted. The establishment is dying. The problem is they haven’t yet been replaced with anything better.
Citizen journalism and social media (a democratised platform) can produce a political movement like the Arab Spring (and that’s being damned with faint praise), and can produce an Obama presidency and then a Trump presidency. Citizen journalism, or the loss of power of ‘establishment authorities’ like the traditional mainstream media (the ‘institution’ or the press as ‘an estate of the realm’), also gives rise to ‘fake news’… because the fragmenting of media companies means that professional standards, regulations, and codes of ethics are out the door, and even the legal protections like defamation laws are less effective because the cost of going after a blogging operation running from a bedroom isn’t really worth it (like it might have been against a media outlet operated by News Ltd). It opens up the ‘publish first seek forgiveness later’ mentality, and removes the burdens of fact checking and source confirmation and all sorts of things that have protected us as an audience, but also given authority to particular established outlets.
Season three of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom grappled with this tension beautifully. Here’s a great clip.
“People don’t read this with the expectation of it being true…”
It’s actually based on a real world example. That’s the line offered by the voice from the margins — the voice seeking to challenge the establishment and the role of authority, the creator of ACNgage. And it’s almost the voice that says ‘the market will decide who is worthy of having authority’ coming from the new reformers.
Here’s the quote that Newsroom quote is built from…
“What the stalker map is is citizen journalism, people don’t read it with the expectation that every word of it will be Gospel, everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all. What they read it for is the immediacy… you get an unfiltered… the way that people perceive celebrities in real time…”
For those of us who are idealists about what role the media might play in transparent and accountable politics, this is diabolical in the sphere of the press; but for those of us wondering about Christian voices and authority in the social media world there’s a word of warning here; can we afford to be so blasé about truth and the idea that it’s ‘people’ as readers who have to do the work of discernment?
Do we really want to, in a rush to democratising the web using egalitarian (in the broadest sense, not the ‘technical’ term within Christian debates about gender) technologies really want to do away with all institutions (and credibility and expertise and accountability and ethics) to let populism rule?
In my idealistic wannabe journalist phase I was schooled to believe that what the public is interested in is not the same as what is in the public interest; the idea that journalists have a gatekeeping role to play when it comes to deciding what qualifies as news. The problem with our modern news institutions is that they’ve become more interested in serving up what we think we’re interested in at the expense of what we should be interested in in order to live in a flourishing society. Here, for example, are some of the stories from the news.com.au homepage last week.
How ‘Police Officer turns to career in stripping’ is a finance story escapes me; but these are stories that are designed primarily to entertain and titillate; not to inform the public about things that are important for the common good. This little picture of a ‘media institution’ in the new media landscape makes a very good case for democratisation and reform; so long as we replace it with something better — not just a thing that gives our itching ears a good scratch.
Reform could be a really good thing for the media; but I’m not so sure the ‘blogosphere’ or ‘citizen journalism’ is the answer to this problem. I’m not sure that bad institutions are a reason to do away with institutions altogether. If the media we consume shapes our common life, and is part of what helps us flourish as societies, then I’m not sure we’ll be richer without institutions. We just need different institutions that are able to harness the good parts of new technology without an overcorrection. Which is harder than it stands; because most revolutionaries are functionally aggressive monotheists (our way is the way), not pluralists (we want to make space for multiple ways held in tension); we want total victory over the other, especially when the other has been oppressive and there’s a sense of justice. The natural tendency of reformers is to replace; to fill the power vacuum you create by overthrowing the old system. That’s why in some revolutions the establishment get beheaded.
A power shift from the few to the many, without considering some of the limits of power that the ‘few’ faced (or ideally faced) that the many won’t, will be dangerous. While institutions can be terrible and corrupt and serve fairly narrow agendas, this does not mean that all authority structures are equally terrible. It’d also be naive to think that no structure but the totally ‘democratised’ audience is the best option; this is already happening in the traditional media; the media that is market driven gives the market what it wants rather than what it needs; it aims for excitement, entertainment and titillation rather than information for formation. The same sort of naivety that leads to the death of expertise in stuff like direct democracy political parties; populism is a terrible master. It’s funny that populism and the rise of fake news gave the US a Trump presidency, but Trump is so keen to be ‘anti-establishment’ that he’s calling the establishment media fake news… In a democratised platform we, the people, are responsible for deciding what behaviour is ethical, acceptable, and in our interest, we, the people, are responsible for deciding what content deserves a wider audience. The power is in our hands; and so questions of how to place limits on the power of the mob are worth staring down. It’s possible Luther was a bit right about the revolting peasants, even if democracy is actually a really great thing, and even if his motives were a bit questionable.
We don’t want the reformers to become the new establishment to wield exactly the same sort of power against their opponents as the previous establishment. We want to, I think, figure out how to create democratic institutions that have a clearly articulated platform, a clear code of ethics, and external (perhaps legal) accountability; but also an understanding of what these democratic platforms must do for the voiceless (they should give them a voice). New mediums lose lots of this stuff by their democratised nature; but they gain the ability to give a voice to those who have otherwise been voiceless (which is why they’re usually quickly adopted, or even developed, by the marginalised who are pushing for systemic reform). New mediums put more control in the hands of the audience/market than ever before; a platform itself isn’t enough; you choose what you read; but then you have the opportunity to become a contributor (by commenting), or a publisher (by sharing to other social media channels, or by publishing your own response elsewhere). The new establishment is fragmented; and authority now comes more from the audience than the platform. Some people are responding to this by producing new media platforms (Gawker, Buzzfeed, etc and Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti’s stuff on new media (linked to in this old post) is worth reading if that stuff interests you).
So here’s my theory; true reform doesn’t change who’s in the establishment but the nature of ‘establishment’ or the system itself (and technology can be part of that). What we’ve got to do here is navigate between media being in the hands of a powerful elite who exclude perspectives outside their own but have some in built accountability, and the media being in the hands of everybody with accountability being totally external (in the hands of the audience). This is true in the secular ‘new media’ landscape when it comes to how institutions function or what the establishment looks like… but it’s also a thing for us to figure out as Christians. We, in the Christian ‘blogosphere’; have our little parallel institutions, aren’t immune from this stuff either; there’s an establishment (often in the form of the institutional church and its proxies, but also in the form of voices that have a certain amount of authority because of how they’ve been supported by traditional Christian media outlets). And these videos above are a beautiful picture of the current debate online and what’s at stake outside the church and inside it…
This new media is inevitably and inherently democratic, it will, as I suggested in my last post, favour the anti-establishment side where that side has not been perceptively inclusive or democratic; and the side arguing for the equality of all voices (a true ‘priesthood of all believers’) against a narrow priesthood… much as the printing press favoured the reformers and aligned with their framework. If you give everyone a voice with a new technology, it’s those who’ve been marginalised who (historically) who’ll be the quickest to pick up the new technology (if not to develop it in order to serve their agenda).
What would be a terrible idea in the face of this technological upheaval, or disruption, would be to attempt to play the game the way we always have; to be like the Catholic Church in the face of the Reformation, or the traditional print media in the face of the Internet… Those of us who believe there are some good things to conserve in our institutions, in the face of progress, need to grapple with how to make our institutions nimble and rightly progressive; to be better and more compelling than the alternatives. If a democratised, or egalitarian, technology favours those with totally egalitarian theology (be it on gender or just on questions of institutional authority or tradition) then we need to think pretty hard about how to offer a better alternative (possibly a generously ‘pluralistic’ one). The thing that worries me most about the egalitarian stuff isn’t so much the theology (there are many things I agree with as someone who, with Luther, is big on the priesthood of all believers and the equality of all people under God), but the potential that an egalitarian approach to life actually creates a meritocracy; that once there’s no sort of structural control or accountability, it’s the powerfully persuasive voices that actually get favoured and build the biggest platforms; and the message of the cross, I think, should totally undermine anything that looks like a meritocracy or powerfully persuasive human arguments. What an interesting alternative might look like is the sort of vision of a media that the ABC’s Scott Stephens put forward, that I’ve now quoted a couple of times:
“Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.” — Scott Stephens, at the Emmanuel Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society’s Faith and Public Office Conference
Maybe rather than being egalitarian we should be those who act to amplify the voices of those the world seeks to silence; even if those voices say things we disagree with, because we recognise the dignity and equality of those people too; this is what real democracy looks like anyway; not populism or a level playing field so that the meritorious can rise via the mechanism of the audience-as-market.
Part of the solution for surviving and thriving in the digital world is good content. Content that is virtuously good in the public interest/geared towards human flourishing sense, but also content that is good because it has credibility, and integrity, and a demonstrable commitment to an ongoing reputation. There’s a degree to which this means good content probably comes with some sort of connection to real world accountability structures rather than with no regard to things like the law and ethics (see the videos above), as Christians it probably means we ought to have some declared connection to a doctrinal framework or church community so that people know where we are coming from as they assess the content. But it’s not enough that the content simply be good; newspapers (apart from News Ltd papers) still produce good content, but they’re dying (so too, the content produced in the newsroom in The Newsroom). This content also needs to be truly social or liquid; part of the new media landscape is the idea that people are publishers not just readers, and publication (be it comments, responses, etc should be as frictionless as possible), and part of being democratised might actually be opening up our platforms to voices we might otherwise naturally exclude (in this case the call is coming from women, who are quite capable of producing their own compelling platforms and gaining a hearing, but perhaps it’s also non-tertiary educated Christians, youth, people from non-english speaking backgrounds etc).
We Christians are pretty good at setting up our own parallel (but lamer) institutions; so where in the past Christian publishing (particularly in Australia) was often closely tied to book publishing arms of denominations, we’ve now embraced the frictionless environment of the web. Where once we had our own newspapers and printed journals now we have websites as well; content portals or platforms that operate as ‘establishments’ that provide a sort of accountability, ethic, and authority to the content they produce. So we have newer properties like The Gospel Coalition, and Thinking Of God, and evolving properties like Eternity and Gotherefor; of these four I think Eternity is the closest to operating with the ‘social’/democratic nature of the web in mind (even as they employ an editor and journalists and maintain a reasonably high standard for their in house production). The Centre for Public Christianity is another interesting beast that seems to aim to contribute to the secular media rather than operate as a parallel institution (which I think is actually a much better model). But none of the other platforms in the Australian Christian blogosphere (coming out of, or seeking to play as, the establishment) are nailing this (in my humble opinion as a reader/writer/social media user with some professional expertise with the media). We’re far too wedded to the little priesthoods we’ve created — the priesthood of the educated; the priesthood of the male preacher; the priesthood of the large platform/personal brand; the priesthood of the polymath-styled genius/public intellectual who we’ll put up to talk about anything and everything because of who they are (and who they know). In my final post in this little mini-series I’ll consider the Gospel Coalition, Thinking of God, and Eternity as little case studies of this theory and show how only one of them seems geared for survival if the reformation the online conversation about women, ‘teaching’ and the Christian blogosphere is as important as it seems to be to me (as a reader of it, but also as a pastor of a church with plenty of women who say things worth hearing). If the revolution is coming, we do actually need to figure out what authority and accountability look like; these aren’t illegitimate questions to ponder. We need to figure out what the establishment is going to be replaced with.
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 practicesand 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.
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’.
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?
Illustration by Kim Dong-kyu Based on: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich (1818). From: Technology Nearly Killed Me, Andrew Sullivan, New York Mag, Sep 2016
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Arthur C. Clarke
There’s a new Telstra ad that I love because it is beautiful, but that I feel overpromises on what technology can (and does) deliver; in fact, I think it misleads, and invites us to put our hope in the wrong places. But it is a beautiful ad that taps into some deep human desires.
“See? We live in a magical world. We never have to wake up from our dreams. Our restless minds now free to wonder at the wonder of technology; at the magic we’ve created. Possibilities are like stars now infinite constellations fuelled by pure imagination; leading to one destination – to you, to thrive.” — Telstra
The world doesn’t feel as magical as it used to. That’s part of the central thesis of award winning philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Telstra’s marketing gurus seem to have tapped into the haunting sense of loss we have because of the evacuation of magic, or something ‘transcendent’ from our view of the world by suggesting technology itself is the way back; like somehow the answer to our longing for something more than the material is more material, just cleverer, just with the illusion of magic (because part of the evacuation of magic from the world is the belief that anything that looks magical is actually an illusion, which is why we call magicians illusionists now).
It used to be that life was magical; that every thing had some sort of spiritual significance, whether there were gods everywhere behind every event, like a poor harvest or a pregnancy, or in monotheistic cultures everything existed in some way within the life and will of the infinite God; Christians in particular believe that the material world, what Taylor calls the ‘immanent’ world, is somehow given life and significance (or more ultimate meaning) by its connection to the creator, and by Jesus, the creator’s creating and sustaining ‘word’ (transcendent) made flesh (immanent). Colossians 1 has a good example of this view of the world:
“For in [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” — Colossians 1:16-17
C.S Lewis didn’t just write fairy tales for kids and a bunch of Christian reflections on life; he also published academic work on literature, including a book called The Discarded Image which looked at how older generations viewed the world this way; as enchanted, and how that fuelled their creativity, their art, their literature, and so better answered the longings of the human heart for some sort of enchantment, he argued (in 1964) that we’ve lost something as moderns who have kicked the sense of the transcendent out of our world and settled just for the stuff we can see and taste and touch as ‘reality’ and our source of meaning; C.S Lewis would be a little suspicious of Telstra’s advertising I suspect. Even the best technology — the most luxurious things we can fill our house with — he said were a certain sort of ugly, precisely because of this lack of symbolism, or significance, pointing to anything beyond itself (and so we have modern, and post-modern, art, often wallowing in this milieu, and so soulless and empty).
“Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘ faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant-of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer.” — C.S Lewis, The Discarded Image
James K.A. Smith wrote an accessible commentary on Taylor’s massive tome called How (Not) To Be Secular, here are two key ideas from his work:
“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power. Things can do stuff.”
“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular
The implications of these quotes are interesting when read against Telstra’s ad; a campaign designed to reconnect us with the magic we long for, via machines.
The first is interesting because it explains why we look to technology — machines — to enchant our lives; if matter is all that matters, if everything (the universe) is basically one big machine of cause and effect, filled with little machines (us), who make machines (technology) then we’re now likely to rely on technology to give us any sense of what we’ve lost because they’re the closest we get to matter with a soul; other than us, and we get to program the soul into them so they serve us. The second point explains why we want them to serve us by delivering the experience of ‘magic’; because that’s precisely what we’ve lost, and what we long for, and what we’re haunted by. We want matter to matter more than it does; we want a transcendent reality that stretches beyond us; this might be, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, because God has set eternity on the hearts of humanity, but it might just be that we wish magic was real.
If Taylor is right then I don’t think machines; perhaps especially smartphones and screens; will deliver the answer our haunted selves are looking for, they might actually make the haunting worse; especially if all the science looking at what technology use does to our brains and relationships is true; and on this you should definitely read the Andrew Sullivan piece, Technology Almost Killed Me where that picture at the top of this post comes from; Sullivan is one of the world’s most famous bloggers, he went a year without tech, precisely because he felt he was losing himself into a totally ‘immanent’ way of life, and he wanted some transcendence; he found that silence, not distracting technological bombardment, was where something ‘magical’ could truly be found… he looks at how our western world has progressively killed the silence which used to enchant us, and in doing so have ensure our haunted longings for something more, for the infinite reality that silence throws us towards, are not truly satiated.
“The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.
And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.
Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different becauseit was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.”
The inability for technology to really scratch the haunting itch of the loss of the transcendent, that it doesn’t truly ‘enchant’ our world or make our lives feel magical, has fuelled technologist David Rose, who’s committed to creating enchanting technology because he thinks most technology doesn’t live up to the Arthur C. Clarke quote, he wrote a book called Enchanted Objects trying to articulate a vision for the sort of technology that might do this, it’s a compelling read, particularly (I think) for this analysis on the problem with the ideas that screens can deliver the enchantment Telstra promises.
“I HAVE A recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils, and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys, and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives. In my nightmare the landscape beyond the slab is barren. Desks are decluttered and paperless. Pens are nowhere to be found. We no longer carry wallets or keys or wear watches. Heirloom objects have been digitized and then atomized. Framed photos, sports trophies, lovely cameras with leather straps, creased maps, spinning globes and compasses, even binoculars and books—the signifiers of our past and triggers of our memory—have been consumed by the cold glass interface and blinking search field. Future life looks like a Dwell magazine photo shoot. Rectilinear spaces, devoid of people. No furniture. No objects. Just hard, intersecting planes—Corbusier’s Utopia. The lack of objects has had an icy effect on us. Human relationships, too, have become more transactional, sharply punctuated, thin and curt. Less nostalgic. Fewer objects exist to trigger storytelling—no old photo albums or clumsy watercolors made while traveling someplace in the Caribbean. Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the Netscape browser, said, “Software is eating the world.” Smartphones are the pixelated plates where software dines. Often when I awake from this nightmare, I think of my grandfather Otto and know the future doesn’t have to be dominated by the slab. Grandfather was a meticulous architect and woodworker. His basement workshop had many more tools than a typical iPad has apps…”
… Today’s gadgets are the antithesis of Grandfather Otto’s sharp chisel or Frodo’s knowing sword. The smartphone is a confusing and feature-crammed techno-version of the Swiss Army knife, impressive only because it is so compact. It is awkward to use, impolite, interruptive, and doesn’t offer a good interface for much of anything. The smartphone is a jealous companion, turning us into blue-faced zombies, as we incessantly stare into its screen every waking minute of the day. It took some time for me to understand why the smartphone, while convenient and useful for some tasks, is a dead end as the human-computer interface. The reason, once I saw it, is blindingly obvious: it has little respect for humanity. What enchants the objects of fantasy and folklore, by contrast, is their ability to fulfill human drives with emotional engagement and élan. Frodo does not value Sting simply because it has a good grip and a sharp edge; he values it for safety and protection, perhaps the most primal drive. Dick Tracy was not a guy prone to wasting time and money on expensive personal accessories such as wristwatches, but he valued his two-way wrist communicator because it granted him a degree of telepathy—with it, he could instantly connect with others and do his work better. Stopping crime. Saving lives.
— David Rose, Enchanted Objects
He looked to our ‘enchanted’ stories; stories that have the sort of view of the world that Lewis (and his friend Tolkien) looked back to from the past and created in the more recent past… but it’s possible he missed the heart of what these writers (and J.K Rowling) were doing.
What’s the secret to creating technology that is attuned to the needs and wants of humans? The answer can be found in the popular stories and characters we absorb in childhood and that run through our cultural bloodstream: Greek myths, romantic folktales, comic book heroes, Tolkien’s wizards and elves, Harry Potter’s entourage, Disney’s sorcerers, James Bond, and Dr. Evil. They all employ enchanted tools and objects that help them fulfill fundamental human drives.
He does understand that technology will only work if it speaks to fundamental human desires; he’s not going to these stories as books containing “fanciful, ephemeral wishes, but rather persistent, essential human ones,” which he lists as omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, and expression. Basically, to use Taylor’s terminology, we’re in want of something that will pull us from the immanent into transcendence. Rose does just enough to kill Telstra’s claims that connectivity via a piece of glass can give us what our haunted hearts desire, and the technology he writes about as alternatives, like a magic cabinet that has a built in screen with a skype connection to a matching cabinet, which glows when the person at the other end of the line is nearby and allows instant and convenient conversation; well, that’s pretty great and does fan some of the flames of my heart (and could one day make my wallet lighter). The problem will always be that immanent objects — the product of coding and engineering — will only ever leave us trapped in the immanent world, the ‘brass heaven,’ haunted by a sense that there might be something more to life and relationships than that which can be encoded in bits and bytes made up of 1s and 0s. The problem will always be that eternity is written on our hearts; if only, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, we knew where to look to scratch that itch. This writer, who after his journey through life trying to sort the immanent out from the transcendent, concluded:
“So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.” — Ecclesiastes 9:1-2
He doesn’t take this to the negative sort of place you might expect…
“You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
— Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1
Then he says:
“Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
— Ecclesiastes 12:6-7
This is what we’re to do in our ‘immanent’ existence; the fleeting ‘breath’ that this writer reflects on time and time again that is unfortunately often translated as ‘meaningless’… we’re meant to reach out towards the God who gave us breath, knowing that as he puts it at the start of his summing up in Ecclesiastes 9: “the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands“… now… If only we knew where to look to see God’s hands. If only there were some way to scratch where we itch… if only there were some way to bridge between the immanent and the transcendent; to satisfy those deep desires that the writer of Ecclesiastes, Telstra and David Rose are searching for — the ability to see the world as meaningful beyond the material, to give us existence beyond ‘breathiness’ so that we become immortal.
Oh that’s right. According to two thousand years of Christians, and the book we live by… We do.
Paul says some more good stuff about Jesus in Colossians 1; about the implications of that time we see the hands of God; hands nailed to ugly planks of wood by barbaric spikes, these hands Paul says hold the cosmos together became very ‘immanent’ and are the ultimate enchanted objects that deliver on our wildest imaginings. Paul says:
“And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:18-20
That’s more magical than an iThing (as nice as they are) don’t let Telstra, or anyone, sell you short. You can enjoy the sort of life you so deeply desire and are haunted by. You can enjoy life that is more than just immanent, more than just heading towards the dust of the grave, you can enjoy life that’s more than a little bit magical.
“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
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 worship. The second post suggested that how we worshipalso 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.”
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
This weekend I’m repurposing what I said at this presentation for a group of young adults, so-called ‘digital natives,’ from church at South Bank. I’m hoping they’ll teach me some stuff about social media beyond the walls of Facebook.
This post will hopefully be something like a bridge from that college presentation to this next one… and hopefully also work as something of a one-stop-shop for where I’m up to with thinking on this stuff. One of the things I love about blogging is the way you can see your own thinking evolve over the passage of time, and hopefully this is equally helpful for people reading along at home.
Here’s the basic idea…
The internet presents fantastic opportunities for Christians to visibly be people who are made in the image of God, broken by sin, while being transformed into the image of Jesus, so long as we understand the medium.
That mix of being being broken by sin while being transformed into the image of Jesus is pretty important if the cardinal virtue of the new media is authenticity. And I think it is.
It’s important for us to understand the mediums we’re using to communicate because whether you think it’s a gross oversimplification – or a meaningless cliche – the medium really is the message. Or, at least, it dictates how the message is received. So we do actually need to be thoughtful about how (and if) we should use different tools at our disposal to proclaim Jesus.
Here’s a clip from Community where a baby boomer gets excited about the opportunities on YouTube. The same opportunities exist on all sorts of platforms, but we’ll work better online if what we do is less baby boomer and more native. That means thinking about the platforms and why and how people use them.
I thought it might be worth distilling that presentation down into these principles, and explaining what you see in the slides a little bit. Some of these points are abstract and theological (rather than practical), so I’ve tried to give the implications of each point as I understand them. So here goes.
1.God is the ideal communicator/media user. And Jesus is the ultimate example of his communication style.
The Christian God speaks. He created the world (by speaking). Somehow the world, as a creation, reflects the creator. Somehow our relating and communicating is a reflection of the relating and communicating within the Trinity. It’d be almost impossible to make any logical jumps from how God operates to how we should operate without believing that God reveals himself accurately as he communicates. God communicates through revelation – in the media of the Bible (including both the content and communication methodology), but ultimately he communicated in Jesus. His word made flesh. And God’s communication in Jesus shapes his communication through his people…
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” – Hebrews 1:1-3
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – John 1:1“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14
“Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” – John 20:21
God made the world, how the world works reflects him.
God provides the definition of ‘good’ in all areas of life, including in how we go about communicating to other creatures (other people).
We see the best example of his communication, and the easiest to imitate, in the person of Jesus – his life, his manner, his words, his method, and his audience shape our life, manner, words, method and audience.
John’s Gospel starts with Jesus, the word, being sent into the world in the flesh, and ends with Jesus sending his people into the world.
2. We were made to communicate like God does, as his representatives.
In Genesis 1 we learn that God creates, speaks, rules, and relates. In Genesis 2 we see God’s image bearers doing the same thing. Bearing God’s image is an active thing. A job. And this job is performed by speaking (in Genesis 2 man names the animals, as God named the things he made in chapter 1). God’s use of living image bearers is one of the big differences between the God of the Bible and the dead idols he triumphs over throughout the Old Testament. Dead gods are represented by dead wood in shapes made by people, the living God is represented by speaking images that he made.
Compare Genesis 1:26 with Exodus 20:4.
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
The ‘image’ in these two passages are different Hebrew words, but the word used in one for sky and the other for heavens above, and the words for earth and water are the same, as is the word ‘make.’ I think there’s a strong link. God’s people are meant to represent God in a similar way to how idols were thought to represent dead gods. Israel weren’t meant to make images because they were meant to be images. Speaking images.
The communication power of images was pretty massive in the Ancient Near East, and in Rome, and whenever the word image appears in the Bible it is riffing off what people understand images to do in those contexts. When we follow Jesus we are transformed by the Spirit to bear his image in the world, as he perfectly bore the image of God.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” – Colossians 1:15
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” – Romans 8:29
“And 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
Our whole lives communicate about who it is we worship.
Social media is all about projecting an ‘image’ to the world (often using images).
We can choose to project an image of ourselves, our idols, or the idol of self, or we can choose to represent Jesus, bearing his image, like we were made to.
When we speak as Christians we should speak about Jesus and the world God made, as people shaped by Jesus.
3. God communicates by bridging the gap to his audience – especially in Jesus – so we should too.
There are some fancy theological buzz words for this – God makes himself understandable (accommodates) us when he speaks, especially through the process of coming to us, becoming like us and speaking our language (incarnation) – this is what we should be imitating. God is infinite. We are finite. Add up every human thought ever produced, published, and uploaded to the interwebs, and you’re not even getting towards a drop in the ocean when it comes to knowing about God, or the universe he made. Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt famously claimed (perhaps incorrectly) that:
“There were 5 Exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003, but that much information is now created every 2 days.”
This means there’s a lot of information out there about the world (and the suggestion is that Schmidt underestimated how much). If you add up the lifespans, and knowledge, of every human who has existed, and will exist, you still get a finite number. And God’s knowledge is infinite… God knows lots about everything that we don’t (and can’t). He especially knows things about infinity – and his infinite self – that we cannot possibly comprehend. In order for us to know anything about God, truly, he needs to tell us in ways we can understand. This is where the concept of revelation fits in. God bridges this gap and reveals himself in his world, by his word, by the Word made flesh (Jesus), and by the Spirit. This is called ‘accommodation.’ God accommodates himself to us most clearly in Jesus, in the climactic act of the story he is orchestrating on the world stage, the ‘incarnation’ – where he becomes human, and knowable, in the ultimate act of revelation – the act that the rest of revelation (the Bible) points towards (and points out from).
If God has revealed himself to us by his Spirit we’re a little closer to the infinite than we were before this happens. We know stuff about God that other people don’t yet. When we speak in this world we need to remember this gap, and do our best to bridge it.
While these words from Paul in 1 Corinthians could sound like a bit of a dodge, moving away from scrutiny, they’re also consistent with the gap between God’s nature and ours, and what is needed to communicate across that gap, as outlined above.
“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 Corinthians 2:13-14
Paul doesn’t say we should leave that person in the dark and wait for the Spirit to do its work, he seems to think the Spirit works through us as we speak, and particularly as we accommodate the people we’re speaking to. It’s interesting to read this chapter in parallel with Philippians 2. Paul seems to be modelling his accommodating approach on the incarnating accommodation of Jesus.
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
He goes into this ‘accommodating’ thing more in his second letter to the Corinthians.
“… we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 4:2-6
Jesus used the medium people in his day used (he spoke – but he also demonstrated his message through action, and symbols (like the Lord’s Supper), using the language of the people he spoke to (Aramaic), the genres they were familiar with (parables and sermons), and adapted his message according to who he was speaking to.
Jesus words were backed up by his life. He lived a persuasive life. Our conduct backs up our message – our conduct, thanks to social media, is more visible than ever before.
We should aim to communicate with people where they are at, and try, as much as possible given the gap between how we see and understand the world and how those we are communicating understand the world, to “go native.”
Accommodation will include understanding the mediums we use to communicate with these people, how people use them, and what these mediums do to shape the messages (and messengers) they carry, and communicating accordingly in ways that commend and fit our message.
We need to present the unchanging Gospel in ways that are consistent with how the people we are speaking to use the mediums we adopt.
Our communication should be us generously offering what God has given to us to others. We are giving something to the people we speak to.
4. God communicates by subverting the mediums he adopts. So we should too.
If the ‘incarnation’ – the word becoming flesh – is God’s ultimate piece of communication, the ultimate part of this ultimate piece of communication is the cross (and the resurrection). The Cross reveals God’s ethos – God is a God whose character is defined by costly other-centred love. The Cross was a communication medium – it was used to declare the weakness of the crucified, to humiliate them while celebrating the might of the Roman empire. Jesus turns the Cross upside down. Paul arguably does the same with first century oratorical conventions. The Christian message is subversive. When we ‘accommodate’ and ‘incarnate’ we are also ‘subverting’ – this is consistent with what the genres adopted in the Bible do to other texts in their categories, from Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament to Gospels in the New. It’s this subversion, shaped by (and including) the content of our message, that will make it hard for people to accept the Gospel. For Paul, this meant living out the message of the Cross, being beaten, bloodied, humiliated and scarred – and owning that as part of his testimony about the ‘foolishness’ of Christ in the face of first century oratory that celebrated the perfectly sculpted orator’s body and the fusion of the schools of philosophy and rhetoric. Paul is the anti-orator. But in being the anti-orator, he is also being an orator. It’s a paradox. One we also have to wrestle with.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong… And so it was with me, brothers and sisters… When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.“ – 1 Corinthians 1:18, 27, 2:1-5
Jesus becoming human is a model of drawing near to the people we want to reach, Jesus being executed on the cross shows that this drawing near should cost us something and provide a benefit to the other.
Our participation in any communication mediums – including social media – should be shaped by the Cross.
It should be loving, costly to ourselves, for the sake of the people we are trying to reach.
5. Media platforms are not neutral tools, they bring message shaping ‘myths’ to our communication, which in turn shape their users.
These ‘myths’ are what we should be subverting.
You can read more about this stuff in this massive series on what social media use does to our brains. Communication mediums are like any tool – they shape the people who wield them as we use them to do stuff. Consider the arms of a builder using a sledge hammer vs the arms of a builder using a jackhammer. Tools shape us. It’d be naive to think that we (individually and collectively) aren’t changed when we make the switch from using largely oral communication to written communication, or changing from written communication with a high cost of production that is difficult to distribute to the almost frictionless publishing of the online world.
A ‘myth’ in this sense is the stories surrounding the platform, which provide implicit ‘values’ for the messages the medium carries – so, for example, with Facebook the myths are about friendship and connection. Facebook also uses an algorithm to control what people see or don’t see – this algorithm is a pattern based on these ‘myths’ and it completely shapes our experience of Facebook without most of us being aware.
These myths shape our communication – so they shape our thinking directly (inasmuch as our thinking is shaped directly by communication), and indirectly (inasmuch as we are shaped by the tools we use).
I think the Bible has some good stuff to say about worldly myths when it comes to communication – given, especially, that the New Testament was written into a time where arguably the greatest propaganda machine that has ever existed – the Roman Empire – was defining the way media happened (and Christian media words like “Gospel” and “preaching” had meanings for first century audiences that were being subverted).
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5
“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 12:2
Some of the values and ‘myths’ our communication platforms contain will be expressions of the function as image bearers of the living God that all humans still have so we don’t necessarily have to turn every communication platform upside down in order to use them, but we do have to be aware of how and why a medium/platform works to use it well.
If we are trying to decide whether to use or subvert a medium we should ask questions about the ‘myths’ or embedded values mediums/platforms contain, and the patterns these values create.
We need to know how mediums work so that our messages will be seen by the people we’d like to see them.
The Gospel of Jesus, with its ’embedded values’ that renew our minds, is the story that shapes us as communicators into living communication mediums. This trumps all other mediums/myths.
What these mediums do to us as we use them is part of the cost of communication that we should be prepared to wear in order to reach people.
6. Social media platforms are ‘social’ and they are ‘media’
Most people who get social media wrong (in my opinion – and by most objective measures of effective use of a medium) fail to take the dual nature of new media into account. It’s there in the name. Social Media is both ‘social’ – built around person-to-person relationships in networks, and ‘media’ – a public and permanent form of communication. If you’re not a stickler on your privacy settings (and even then – thanks to the way people can copy, record, screenshot, and share the stuff you post beyond your intended audience), when you post stuff online it’s a form of broadcasting/publishing. While you might post stuff to your friends on a platform like Facebook, every friend who joins in a discussion on one of your posts is potentially broadcasting the conversation to all of your mutual friends and most of their friends. That’s essentially how the Facebook algorithm works (though it is tweaked constantly).
If you’re talking to your friends online it’s worth remembering that it’s possible that you’re talking to your friends through a megaphone in a public park. Most people might not be interested in listening, but they don’t always have a choice. This is truer still on platforms like Twitter where the privacy settings are almost non-existent. And on blogs. The implications of this are that while the stuff you post may have an intended context when it comes to people you know, what you say can very quickly be shared beyond that context. An example – probably far removed from the experience of anyone reading this, is how much the mainstream media is now relying on tweets for their coverage of major events and human interest stories. Twitter is the new vox-pop. It’s handy for journalists because they can pick people based on their level of expertise, number of followers/retweets, or proximity to events.
Broadcast media from a central authoritative voice is dying. Authority is being determined by the market – the stuff that is shared and ‘viral’ rather than by expertise. This is good for those who want to publish stuff who didn’t originally have the platform, but it is bad for expertise (and expertise is important). Experts need to publish for themselves, and figure out how to get their content distributed through networks.
Media distribution used to look like this:
Now it looks like this.
Those graphics are flogged from Tom Standage’s TEDx talk promoting the excellent Writing On The Wall which explores how this shift in media is a return to how the media worked prior to the mass media – suggesting that it’s mass media with distribution power in the hands of the few that is a relative anomaly once societies become literate.
Don’t post stuff on social media that you don’t want broadcast to the world.
Because it’s media and you have a message you have to think a bit like someone being interviewed by a journalist (or all the people seeing your stuff). So stay on message – or at least avoid doing or saying things that undermine your key message. Which is the Gospel.
When you do post stuff, be aware that the whole world could be watching on have the audience beyond you initial audience in mind (and so, provide context for people who don’t know you, where possible).
When you want stuff to spread, don’t act as a ‘broadcaster’ – social media is two-way, it celebrates user generated content not stuff that feels corporate. Post stuff as a real person, to real people, with a view to ongoing relationship and conversation – not as some sort of robot.
Credibility is hard to achieve and easy to lose.
7. Social media platforms are ‘democratised’ media – they make everybody a potential reporter, an editor, or a curator.
Broadcast media as we know it is dying. Most of the obituaries point to the Internet, and the changing patterns of media consumption, as the killer. I think it’s also partly that our broadcast media is really terrible. Generally. And one of the ways it’s terrible is that it’s a completely one way street – and they’ve invited their demise by turning to social media to suddenly make media consumption two-way (think hashtags during Q&A, or tweets during reality TV). This trend is known as ‘democratisation.’
The word ‘democratised’ is a buzzword that describes a few concepts that distinguish social media from broadcast media. It captures these ideas.
Everyone is free to publish online – publishing is free, or cheap (in the case of a blog).
What people see (and where people are going to see things) has now been taken out of the hands of the publisher and put in the hands of algorithms like Google’s search tool and Facebook’s news feed. Google will doubtless be working harder and harder to include social ‘juice’ in their algorithm to deliver more intuitive results.
User generated content has somehow gained traction at the expense of expert generated content and content generated by large corporations. Authenticity is the cardinal virtue of the social media world.
Authority comes from the crowd – via recommendations directly sourced, and through user-generated platforms where content is created and reviewed by the masses (eg wikipedia, airbnb, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, Yelp, Beanhunter, etc).
We participate in this new media world whether we know it or not – everything we share, like, interact with, and view, is monitored and used to shape the internet we, and our friends, see. We all have an audience.
Here are some handy facts about how this works. This is largely about Facebook and comes from a video called ‘A World Without Facebook.’
The algorithms Facebook use influence our ability to effectively report, edit, and curate. They’re stuff to be aware of when it comes to the content you share. The algorithm changes all the time – but it basically measures how connected people in your network are to you (how often they interact with you), and how popular a particular post is. The algorithm is getting smarter all the time and Facebook is focused on serving up ‘high quality’ items. Posting lots of stuff nobody cares about is a way to guarantee Facebook will stop serving up your stuff to your friends. Maybe think about how often you interact with different sorts of posts and avoid the ones you tend to avoid.
The average person posts three things a day in their newsfeed, the average user with an average number of friends has up to 390 pieces of content they could be seeing any time they log in. It’s a noisy world. If you want people to meet the authentic, Gospel shaped, you and hear what you have to say you have to figure out how to grab attention amidst all this noise. Probably it will involve paying attention to others, and responding like a person who loves them (and actually loving them).
Genuine generosity or ‘providing value for free’ is at the heart of most advice about social media success.
There are fun studies out there on what happens to your newsfeed when you like everything, or like nothing, that suggest the more genuine you are in your interactions online the better the experience.
Be generous and genuinely other person centred on Facebook and you’re simultaneously winning and subverting the Facebook game.
8. Social media platforms are limited
Social media is ‘cheap’, disembodied and pixelated, and word/verbal heavy (in the old way of talking about communication – it’s logos driven).
It doesn’t take long for a horrible use of a new tool to follow the invention of a tool. Historically horrible uses of tools have driven innovation – the porn industry is responsible for massive technological change, as is military research. Trolling. Cyber-bullying (really, just bullying). Horror stories about adults grooming kids. Phishing scams. Vigilante name and shame campaigns exposing people who are actually innocent as criminals. Doxing. It’s easy to see the very obvious failures of new media (old media isn’t much better – just google “phone hacking scandal” to see a prime example of pretty horrible stuff being done in the name of ‘media’). But social media has some pitfalls for the rest of us too.
Even when we accept the premise that our communication in person is ‘mediated’ – as in, we choose how we present ourselves and communicate our thinking to another party – a significant portion of our communication (and our ability to receive communication via our senses) is non-verbal. This means communication online is mostly words (we can do videos and pictures as well), it’s disembodied. Our communication is mediated by pixels. It’s disincarnate – by nature. Moving away from costly relationships and into the frictionless online environment is a move in the opposite direction to the example Jesus gives in becoming flesh. This said, God obviously values communication via text (and other mediums), that’s why we have the Bible – his written word (and why it calls us to live in ways that communicate things about who he is through our ethics, structures, and sacraments).
Part of the myth of social media is that it’s free – or cheap. Which gives messages carried on the medium an implicit value – lower than the value of a plane ticket that brings people together, lower than the value of a posted letter, or a phone call. But these communication forms are still valuable because all communication says something about the communicator valuing their audience. Communication takes time, creativity, effort. It costs. Online communication is also costly in terms of what the use of a medium is doing to the person using it, following the thinking outlined above. This cost is also caught up in the old saying that if you’re not paying for something you’re not the customer, you’re the product. Being on Facebook, or other mediums, comes at a cost to your privacy, to your brain, to your schedule…
It’s worth reading this mega-essay from Michael Jensen on the ABC’s Religion page to get a slightly different view on this question. He cites a whole heap of examples that back up the value of communication via writing, suggesting it is a valuable form of co-creating and image bearing. Which is absolutely true. If participating in social media wasn’t of value then I’ve wasted the 4,800 words I’ve spent on this post so far…
Here’s a snippet from this essay.
“Even when we say that the physical presence of a person doesn’t remove the need for interpretation, it is still the case that we use written texts to substitute for the relative immediacy of physical presence. People have of course been using social media for centuries. What is a letter but the use of a written text to mediate the presence of one person to another? And ancient writers had noticed the power of a written text to convey presence-in-absence. Psalm 119 is an extraordinary encomium to the torah, verging perhaps on blasphemy, since the words and commands and precepts and statutes are themselves praised to the highest. But since the divine word conveys – or even substitutes for – the divine presence, this logolatry is perfectly in keeping with Hebrew monotheism.
The epistolary form that so dominates the New Testament canon brings this issue of presence-in-absence to the fore. Paul repeatedly pours himself into his words, keenly feeling the pain of physical absence because of distance and because of the chains of his imprisonment. In 1 Corinthians 5:3, he writes, “though absent in body, I am present in spirit”…
For Paul, the point of being present in body is not as if somehow to remove the need for hermeneutics – it is, rather, ethical. This conveys a hermeneutical advantage, but does not remove the need for hermeneutics. What I mean by that is the fact that Paul reminds the churches of his physical presence, and yearns to be present with them again, is a testimony to his integrity and affirms his love for them. It was not only his words, but his observed manner of life in connection to those words – in imitation of Christ – that establishes his apostleship, and proves his sincerity of motive. He reminds his listeners of his costly service of them and of the way in which he supported himself financially when he was with them.
What Paul reminds us of here is that bodily creatures delight in their proximity to other bodily creatures. The physical presence of another person comforts and stimulates and enlivens us in a unique way. If it were not so, then death would not worry us: we would just read what the dead person wrote. Paul’s chains, and his fear of his impending death, do concern him because he will not be able to be present alongside his words so as to confirm and entrench them. It is he who will write, “now we see through a glass darkly; then we will see face to face.” Nevertheless, his words can – effectively if not completely – mediate his presence to his first readers, and beyond them, even to contemporary readers. Logos can, by the powers of recollection or imagination, supply the missing pathos and ethos.
Ultimately, in fact, Paul’s ministry was about the temporary absence of Christ, and about the way in which his presence could be mediated – by the Spirit, received by those who believed the preached Word of God.”
This is great stuff. I’ve edited out a few of the Biblical references because that quote is already too long… But while I agree that text is a “substitute for the relative immediacy of physical presence” that can “mediate the presence of one person to another” – it’s not a two way mediation. It only works that way for the person receiving the text. And the best ‘social’ media (indeed the best of any ‘communication’ – if it is an act of communion between two parties) is two-way. I think that’s what John captures when he writes this (and he writes something that is essentially identical in 3 John).
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
Social media is disembodied ‘logos’ driven communication, which makes ethos (and other context people use for interpretation) largely invisible – when we use these platforms we need to provide this context in our words.
A good rule of thumb given the limitations of written communication is to write with clarity, while reading with charity. Give people what they need to understand you, read people in the most generous possible way and ask for help understanding what they’ve said.
While we interact with other pixelated avatars online, there’s a person on the other side of the screen.
The best communication – modelled on the incarnation of Jesus – is costly, and moves sacrificially from disembodiment to embodiment. Communication via pixels is easier than communication via blood, sweat, and tears.
Presence in ’embodied’ communication means the relationship is simultaneously costly/valuable for both parties. In text the cost is paid by the writer in the absent presence of the reader, and the value experienced by the reader in the absent presence of the writer.
Text is a great and important way to communicate, especially when we have to be absent. It lasts longer, and, thanks to the Internet, is much less costly to transmit than for any previous generation. Once upon a time text had to be engraved into stone. Printing this post on a printing press would have required plates to be created letter by letter.
A good rule of thumb in ‘costly’ communication is to up the cost a step when you’re responding. If someone texts you, ring them, if someone calls you, catch up over coffee, etc. The medium is the message – how we choose to communicate to someone shows how we value them.
9. Social Media has incredible potential for Christians to be the people we are called to be for the sake of the people around us.
This is more conclusion than final point, and this conclusion is the basic position I think we arrive at given the first eight points. Every communication medium has limits. That’s part of our finitude. But the massive opportunities presented by the incredibly low barriers to participating in the new media landscape mean Christians who want to live out our calling faithfully should be seeking to do this online (and offline). Where opportunities present themselves.
Christians are called to pursue generous, costly, engagement with others, seeing the value of any available medium, but always seeking to become more ‘incarnate,’ in order to both present and live out the message of the Gospel so that our medium and message are aligned.
Here’s where things end up for Abed and Shirley, if you can remember back that far…
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
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 Deathwhich 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).
“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”
The fifth point is the most interesting.
“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”
J.R.R Tolkein, On Fairy Stories, 1947
This one is a slight change of pace. I hadn’t heard of it until I read a footnote in TheoMedia, but it has come up a couple of times since. It’s worth a read, partly our of curiosity, but partly because if you want to be a story teller it pays to learn from master story tellers… What I really like about this essay (and about the others above) is the link they make between media-making, and media-consumption, and what it means to be human. DFW was an Atheist, Neil Postman was Jewish, and Tolkein a Catholic – but each has something profoundly true to say about our humanity and how it is shaped by what we consume and create.
“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”
“The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”
Ridiculous though it may be for one so ill-instructed to have an opinion on this critical matter, I venture to think the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate. The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result.”
Those bits are good. These bits are absolute gold.
To many, Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it, combining nouns and redistributing adjectives, has seemed suspect, if not illegitimate. To some it has seemed at least a childish folly, a thing only for peoples or for persons in their youth. As for its legitimacy I will say no more than to quote a brief passage from a letter I once wrote to a man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”; though to do him justice he was kind enough and confused enough to call fairy-story-making “Breathing a lie through Silver.”
“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”
Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion…
Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.
His epilogue is insanely good. I’ve already quoted heaps of him. I know. But this is eminently quotable, and I am guessing you’re not going to click the link and read the whole thing, so here is an only ever-so-slightly abridged version of his concluding remarks.
Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it…
The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.
It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.
This is the book I would write about how we think about media as Christians if I was going to write a book about how we think about and use media as Christians.
It is exceptional, and if you have any respect for how I’ve approached this sort of topic on this blog over the past however many years I’ve been banging on about this stuff – you should stop reading this review and buy the book, its title, in full, is: TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age.
I’m glad Andy Byers has written it for me, and for others. I will be effusive in my praise of this book (though I think there are definitely stones left unturned should I ever actually want to write a book). I will praise it to the hills because I believe it is essential reading for Christians who want to take the Gospel into new mediums using new technologies with a strong theological foundation.
It is methodologically sensible, theologically invigorating, and practically stimulating. It is the best book on thinking about the intersection of theology and media studies that I have read, and I have read all the others. Well. Maybe not all the others. But lots.
Like any book – this one should be assessed on its own terms. So Byers says:
“The conviction underlying this book is that Christian scripture is not only the best source for understanding Jesus but also the best source for understanding Google.”
“This book is a hermeneutical project in the church’s wider efforts of trying to understand the technological mediascape of the twenty-first century. The purpose is not to offer a how-to guidebook to help churches incorporate communications technology into their worship and witness. I am hoping to provide something more foundational. The point is to make some headway in constructing a theological frame of reference for understanding and appropriating media in the digital age and in the ages to come.”
His argument is:
“First: if God himself creates and employs media, then there must be a theological logic that can guide how we produce and use media and communications technology today. Here is the second claim: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God—TheoMedia, the communicative and revelatory means God employs to share himself and to influence humankind as his image bearers.”
His treatment of the unfolding Biblical saga is exceptional, and the touch points he selects and unpacks in this story are spectacular. His definition of media is broad – anything that is a “means to communicate” – and that is how I think it should be. Just about every ‘thing’ can function as media. His definition of TheoMedia is equally broad.
“… although there is such a thing as “new media,” the actual concept of media is as old as the hills. This is true literally, because the hills themselves are a form of media. God’s media. Or, we could say, “TheoMedia.” Media production began with God. The aesthetic media of God’s creation was produced by another form of divine media. The slope of the valleys and the rise of hills beneath glorious sky blue all came about through the medium of holy speech. Divine words addressed the primordial cosmic blankness, and ever since “let there be…” sounded in the dark, creation has served as a means of divine revelation and divine self-communication.”
I’m increasingly convinced that something akin to media studies is vital for good exegesis – knowing how a type of text functioned in its context is as important for interpretation as figuring out how the content of the text would have been understood in its context – indeed, you can’t do one without the other. I love how Byer’s approach to the question of media is driven by Biblical Theology – by unpacking how the media of God develops over the trajectories of the Biblical story.
“So to retrain what we think about “media,” we are going to make a pilgrimage of sorts throughout the entire biblical saga, tracing the narrative plotlines of the epic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-Creation to show that the idea of media is a central theme of the church’s most sacred text.”
His understanding of this story is Christ centred, so his conclusions are also Christological, which, again, I think makes this book a must read.
I’m especially thrilled at his anthropology – his understanding of the role communication plays in what it means to be human. It’s all about humans being made in the image of God. More than any other work in this area, Byers gets that bearing an image involves communication (I’m pretty passionate about this).
“The most fundamental vocation of humanity is a media vocation, that of divine image bearing. Though the rest of creation reflects divine glory and beauty, Adam and Eve were endowed with an even more intrinsic capacity for conveying God’s character and intentions in the world.”
Byer’s description of how sin smashed this function, and how it is ultimately dealt with, and restored for us, in and through Jesus, is great. It is the theological basis for our participation in media use.
“Originally destined as the bearers of God’s image in the world, humanity—both Gentile and Jewish—had become shaped by the world’s unwholesome images and untruthful words. The once uninterrupted interaction with God was now clouded; the transmission was lost in the distracting white noise of worldly media. Such a disastrous media situation required a media “eucatastrophe,” to borrow a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. That media “eucatastrophe” (an event of catastrophically good proportions) finally took place. It was the Incarnation. The TheoMedium of God’s Word became flesh. The public announcement of what Jesus has done on our behalf as the God who took on flesh is called “gospel.” It is a media term. In the genre of a eucatastrophic newsflash, the TheoMedium of the gospel is the breaking news that our King has arrived and conquered, that the mediated distance between humanity and God is to be bridged through the work of the Incarnate Christ, a new Mediator who has come from offstage as abruptly as that serpent of old. And this Mediator is hailed as the untainted “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15)… In the wake of bloodied cross and vacated tomb, a new TheoMedium was formed. Indwelled by the Spirit, that society we call “church” was created as a new TheoMedium in the world in the sense that we as the church are now being restored as bearers of God’s image.”
Byer’s is sensitive to the function of images in the Ancient Near East – a big part of my Masters Thesis, so very exciting for me. In the Ancient Near East kings held on to political power by building images of themselves as gods, fusing the royal with the divine – such imagery (which was later applied to coins and all sorts of multi-media) functioned as a powerful communication tool. Images of God-Kings communicated just by being. So did idols in a temple – which were ‘activated’ by a mouth washing ceremony by a river in a temple so that they would ‘speak for’ the god (just like Adam in Eden in Genesis 2 if you buy the theory that Eden is a proto-temple).
These images communicated something – by being representatives of the god-king. Byers shares this quote:
“Social space—the areas in which life was lived—for pagans was thus in a sense alive with images, mythologized. The statues in the temples and around the cities, the reliefs on the altars, the busts and statuettes of the home, etc. all, with varying degrees of intensity to be sure, figured the divine or, better for ancient polytheism, the divinities. The notion of a secular, separate realm devoid of religious penetration is of course a modern invention (if not itself a fiction). For ancient pagans, space was religious.” — KAVIN ROWE
But these images of god-kings and gods didn’t speak – nor did the gods behind the purely religious images. Image bearers of the God who does speak also speak, but we also communicate by being representatives of God, scattered around his world. Byers notes – from Israel’s history – that the media we soak ourselves in will end up shaping us.
“Choosing God’s words crafts us into a certain type of person. Choosing idolatry turns us into a vastly different sort of person. Media preferences alter who we are. Moses finds this painful story of the stone words and the metal calf to be gravely instructive for the Israelites who are about to make their fateful river crossing. They are a people shaped by certain media that cannot abide certain other types of media. The program of Canaan’s media displacement must therefore begin immediately. Hence the charge to physically mark their entry into Canaan with those plastered rocks. Think of the contrast in media form and content that will instantly take place once God’s people set foot onto their new land. Rather than images carefully crafted through metallurgy and woodworking, Israel will pile up twelve rocks and cover them with script. Stone words.”
We communicate by doing – but as people made in the image of the God who speaks, we represent him best when we bear his image (in what we do) and we use words. We need words to truly bear God’s image. Because God speaks. That’s what gives words priority. But words can never be separated from how they are delivered. This slight distinction plays out in Byer’s application – which seeks to resolve what I think should be a dichotomous tension – suggesting that TheoMedia makes words a priority. This is probably the only weakness I see in TheoMedia, and one of the coolest things about the Christian bookosphere overlapping with the Christian blogosphere is that we’ve been able to chat about my questions over email. I love that. It makes reading books so much more relationally connected.
Byer urges Christians to learn from the way God dealt with an increasingly complex media landscape for Israel – who were confronted by images (idols and temples) wherever they looked as they left Egypt and fought their way to the Promised Land. So he sees the shema as profoundly important. The idea that in a media saturated world we should spend our time soaking ourselves in God’s media, in order to approach other media from a more healthy perspective.
Here’s what he says about the shema…
“The words of God were to saturate the daily grind of the Israelite family. They were to feature orally in conversations in the fields and in the home. Bound to the hand, stuck between the eyes, and emblazoned on the entranceways of the home, the TheoMedia of God’s words were also to occupy the visual space of God’s people. In a world rife with unauthorized media sources, the Israelites were commanded to esteem their God as their primary media source, holding fast to the TheoMedia of divine words, embracing a life saturated by holy speech.”
“The greatest commandment in scripture—the highest demand on our lives—encourages a set of media practices by which our lives are saturated with verbal TheoMedia. The Shema should be recognized as a central text as the church negotiates twenty-first-century media. It is a passage that reminds Christians in the digital age and every age that we are called to media saturation, but the media that are to so thoroughly permeate every dimension of our lives are the media of God.”
Byers argues that we should prioritise ‘word’ media over all other forms – in part on the basis of the Shema, but because he’s serious about Biblical Theology this is a thread he carries through into the New Testament (more below).
“If oral and textual TheoMedia are indeed prioritized, then it is incumbent on us to retain and strengthen the skills of hearing and reading. If the burden of the previous chapters on the sights and sounds of God was to argue that TheoMedia are various and multisensory, the burden of this chapter and the next is to show that they are subordinate to logocentric media, that is, the word-oriented media of prophetic discourse and holy text.”
But first – my slight critique.
Words never occur in a vacuum – they always come with the context provided by the speaker – even in creation itself, when God spoke into the void (arguably, literally, a vacuum) – it was who was speaking that made stuff happen.
Byers is well aware of the trouble with dichotomies – he spends significant time showing that there’s often a false dichotomy presented between the idea that Scripture functions propositionally vis a vis narratively, when it should be both, held in tension.
When it comes to the verbal v visual dichotomy he acknowledges the multimedia nature of God, so he’s already pretty nuanced in his approach to the dichotomy, I just don’t think he should resolve it.
“We have seen that God is a multimedia God and that his words are also multimedia in nature. Like fire in the prophet’s bones, they are hard to contain, bursting the limits of our dichotomies and bursting the limits of every media format that would communicate them. Verbal TheoMedia cannot be safely locked within ink or confined within chiseled inscriptions. They are living words, words that can be seen as well as heard, tasted as well as touched.”
The big problem I have with his treatment of the Old Testament – and it’s only minor – is that I don’t think you can actually separate the words of the Shema from the visual communication effect that the Shema being carried out was intended to have on both people in Israel, and the nations. You can’t split cause and effect in this way by placing the emphasis on cause – because the effect is necessary, and part of the intended function of the law.
I like what Wenham says about the performance aspect of the entirety of Torah:
“But not only is the Old Testament ritual law central to theological understanding of scripture; I also want to suggest it is a model of modern communication technique. For a long time Christians have imagined that communication between God and man is essentially verbal, merely a matter of words. God speaks to man through the prophets or through the Bible: man replies in prayer. We view communication with God as a sort of two-way radio. But God does not restrict himself to words, he uses ritual such as sacraments: ritual is more like colour TV than radio. Ideas are made visible… Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do. Modern preachers put most of their effort into teaching by hearing, though 90% of what they say will be forgotten. Moses put his main effort into teaching through ritual, a wise move if he wanted the people to remember such fundamental truths, for ritual is a kind of doing and therefore sticks in the mind much better than words…But I believe we should go further: not simply act out the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, but in our post-literate age devise dramatic rites that teach the fundamental truths of the new covenant as effectively as the Pentateuch teaches those of the old. This will require imagination and sensitivity, but I think would be worth the effort.”
If Wenham’s correct – part of the power of the Shema was in the doing, and part was in the watching – more than in the hearing (even if doing involved speaking the words). My argument is these things are so interconnected it is silly to try to prioritise one aspect of the communicative act above another aspect of the same part, and in this case, the communicative act is “image bearing for the God who speaks”… Anyway. This is a minor criticism and has only relatively small real world applications (except that it doesn’t undermine the humanity or worth of people who can’t use words as well as others).
Byers presents his argument in a theologically rich and thoroughly engaged way… I love the way he speaks about the Incarnation. God entering the stage, tearing the sky apart…
“And now we come to the point in the Bible’s salvation-history when the sky gets ripped apart. The Bible opens with what appears to be a calm, peaceful scene: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Gospel of Mark opens in similar fashion. The Spirit is portrayed as a dove hovering above the waters of the River Jordan. This violent puncturing of the sky is a decisive moment in the biblical plot of redemption for Mark. It is the moment when it becomes clear that our God will tolerate no longer the divine-human alienation, when he will content himself no more with the mediation of prior centuries: “In Mark, then, God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his Spirit into the earthly realm.” It is not just the sky that gets torn in Mark. The verb schizō reappears at the end of the Gospel, forming what biblical scholars call an inclusio, the dual use of a word or theme that encloses or bookends a larger body of text to serve as an interpretive frame. Mark is to be read within the frame of divine-human boundaries being torn and ripped apart: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37–38).”
I love his use of John the Baptist as a model for using mediums that are wired to try to turn you into the centre of attention.
…Jesus called him the greatest man born of a woman (Luke 7:28; Matt 11:11). It makes good sense to give a little attention to the man Jesus himself called the greatest. But what we find when we look to John is that the all-consuming vocation of the greatest man born of woman was to point to someone greater, and then fade away: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). There was absolutely no self-orientation to John’s celebrity status in the fourth Gospel (or in the other Gospels, for that matter): “In order that he may not be in any sense the object of his own preaching and action, he disowns every kind of movement towards himself.”
What a guide to participating in the online world. But Byer’s conviction (and mine) is that it’s Jesus who is the best model for participating in media.
“In all his flesh and blood reality, we could say that Jesus is the “Multimedium of God.” We could also understand Jesus—speaking, touching, imaging, embodying—as the most significant and the most multisensory TheoMedium of all… Just as the medium and message of the gospel informs our media practices, so also does the Incarnation of Christ.”
He suggests one of the implications of the incarnation is that we value presence over mediated absence, which is a handy tip, but he also suggests we should be seeking to take that presence wherever we can, wherever it’s needed…
“We should honour Christ’s Incarnation by infiltrating multiple communications realms but with a high valuation of embodied presence, refusing to treat social media as a fitting replacement for face-to-face interaction, but enjoying its capabilities for enabling interaction with those who are not across the table or in our living room.”
The climax of the incarnation – the cross – is equally important in framing how we participate in media.
“The cross of Christ opposes self-orientation in any and every setting, online or offline. The motivations behind my status updates are often suspect. My heart vainly flutters a bit when there is a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog. At times I resonate a bit too happily with that exclamation mark when Twitter informs me, “You were mentioned in a Tweet!” The point here is that Christ’s call to selflessness, visually depicted in the cross, extends to any and all realms, even the new realm of the Internet. We need to carry the determinative force of the optical medium of the cross symbol into that realm and comport our media practices accordingly”
This is another point where I feel like TheoMedia may have been strengthened slightly, if the emphasis wasn’t placed on word ministry quite so much, but included the possibility that visual image bearing was a factor in the acting out of the written word (beyond the sacraments). It’s a quibble, but here’s a worked example…
“I am suggesting that the church understand media through the person of Jesus and through the ancient media practices his saving work encourages. Our verbal interactions are to be informed by the verbal proclamation of the gospel. And if we are going to inhabit a visual culture, then we should draw on the visual media legacies of the cross. Some sort of cross-visuality is affirmed when Paul writes to the Galatians that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified” (Gal 3:1 ESV). Now, the Galatians were not present at Golgotha on that fateful day. But Paul’s prior preaching ministry had presented such a “vivid, verbal portrait of the event of Jesus’ crucifixion” that the scene could be understood as having occurred “before your eyes.””
I don’t think Paul just uses vivid spoken words for this – but his scars and suffering too… I think there’s a link between 2 Corinthians 4, (and Paul’s list of suffering for others in 11), and Galatians 6.
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-11
“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. – Galatians 6:14-17
This potentially expands his conclusion – but only slightly, because his conclusion is tops (I’m running out of superlatives and trying not to sound like an Apple product launch).
“We ourselves are TheoMedia. The church comprises fractured image bearers who are being restored to the image of Jesus, the perfect image of God. By the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit, every Christian is now a communicative means by whom God communicates within the church and reveals himself to the world.”
“When it comes to spiritual gifts, the source of communication is God himself. When it comes to spiritual disciplines, we are giving God our attention and asking how he wants to influence our thoughts and alter our actions. There is this simple little policy I try to abide by after I wake up to face a new day. Before opening a screen, my plan is to open my Bible; and before listening to any voice online or on TV, I want to listen out for God’s voice through prayer… As the page has turned to this concluding chapter, my hope is that we are now dripping wet with biblical ink. In order to understand media in the digital age, we have plunged into the sacred texts of the church with the hope of having our perspectives reoriented around biblical wisdom. Reading scripture trains us for certain “habits of thought—habitual ways of viewing or making sense of the world.” This immersing of ourselves in the Bible’s theological vision cultivates “cognitive skills and sensibilities, and hence the ability to see, feel, and taste the world as disclosed in the diverse biblical texts.”
I don’t want to turn you off buying the book by giving away the ending – because 90% of the joy is in the journey to get there… but Byer’s conclusion is so sensible and theologically coherent that it seems obvious.
“We need to be drawing on cultural studies, research data, personal experiences, and practical wisdom for faithful living in the digital age; but not without our sacred “script” as a foundational resource. Here is the second overarching thesis: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God…we need an external media source to crack the soundscape and penetrate our field of vision. We need TheoMedia, the revelatory and communicative means of the One who is the wisest and best.”
He provides a summary of the argument of the book in eight thesis, and this is where the spoilers stop. Buy it. Read it. Give it to anybody who wants to use new mediums thoughtfully to communicate the Gospel. Get this book out there.
Tweet, oh people of God. Blog, text, and type status updates. But linger in the TheoMedia domain of the church and cling to the media legacies of Christ’s Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, Ascension, and return. Hear the gospel. Look to the cross. Feel the embrace of brothers and sisters. Smell the aroma of bread broken and taste the sweet wetness of wine outpoured. Preach and baptize. Exercise spiritual gifts and practice spiritual disciplines that poise our senses before the media of God. – Andy Byers, TheoMedia
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?
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.
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.
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.
“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
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