Neil Postman

Disrupting Church: Some principles for the Covid and post-covid church world

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.

Disruptive Witness: a review

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.

While I’m more inclined to quote Marshall McLuhan than his student Neil Postman, Postman’s essay Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change is worth considering at this point, in support of the thesis of Disruptive Witness. Here are his five 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.”

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fifth point is the most interesting.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Those bits are good. These bits are absolute gold.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Scroll to Top