Thursday, April 24, 2008
Wary of Insularity
An Essay for the 2008 EO/Wheatstone Academy Symposium
While the current political cycle has sharpened our focus on the role of religion in the public square, we often fail to reflect on the role of the public square upon religion. Increasingly, when Christians engage others in public forums, we do so using tools that we did not develop. Whether through movies, music, or new media, we tend to start with a pre-existing cultural forms and incorporate the Gospel as best we can.
As communication theorist Marshall McLuhan argued, the tools we use to communicate a message can shape that message in ways we may or may not intend.* If this is true then Christians have a duty to critically evaluate the effect of our media choices on our message. Do our choices of media forms allow the message to remain Christian? Or are the tools with which we communicate at odds with the message of the Gospel?
If the medium affects the message, how will the Christian message be affected by the new media?
Joe graciously extended an invitation for me to contribute an essay for the Symposium, and the following is something of an answer to this question.
Wary of Insularity
Theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase and elaborated on the concept, that “The Medium is the Message” (TMITM). McLuhan in his lifetime created prolific and elaborate works, combining philosophy and a fair amount of artistic invention. After his death, his family, followers, and business associates have architected around McLuhan’s ideas an impressive edifice of business and educational resources.
I’ve never read McLuhan, but from years of exposure to the many ubiquitous riffs and references to TMITM, it resonates. If nothing else, this year’s Symposium compelled me to read enough background synopses of what McLuhan seemed to be communicating to understand TMITM, at least a little.
It’s a great organizing concept in thinking about creative and expressive acts, and the entirety of consequences that flow from them. Enough to know that I don’t think I’ll take Mark Federman up on his well-intended instructional curriculum for understanding McLuhan. My guess is that summaries like those produced by Federman and his colleagues at the McLuhan Program can convey in two thousand words 95% of the explicit content (if not the implicit media) that McLuhan attempted in two million. (I suppose that’s one way TMITM, too.)
That said, the Christian needs to confront the New Media, and how it might affect the Christian message. More critically, God compels the Christian to consider the fullest range of consequences that result from their own creative and expressive acts, and those of others. This remains true for the Christian, whether in the context of New Media, or in the old, established media of church traditions. I suggest it’s Scriptural.
As I understand him, McLuhan adhered to a definition of media that includes within its scope any extension of ourselves, any tool or utility of matter or expression. A hammer represents a media, as does language, or any act of expression that allows the “‘outering’ of our senses,” to quote Federman, or “anything from which a change emerges.” McLuhan thought of media in this sense as something that grows, and seemingly takes on a life of its own. Federman further asserts that, “since some sort of change emerges from everything we conceive or create, all of our inventions, innovations, ideas and ideals are McLuhan media.”
McLuhan’s conception captures the idea of the individual as a Change Agent, media as the action catalysts, and the message as any and all changes affected.
Many committed Christians will testify that, as a follower of Jesus, they experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, however imperfectly or inadequately that is oftentimes reflected in their walk and practice. For us, that means we acknowledge conflicting truths: that He who is in us, is greater than he that is in the world; that in our carnal nature, the old sinful man, we do what we do not want to do; and that the Spirit and our carnal nature remain in constant struggle. It also means that for us, the Holy Spirit can make our expressions in media a joint effort between us and God – if we let His will be done. Certainly this can be so with Christian use of new media.
The Internet as Medium
The internet serves as an excellent source of information. It makes a remarkable breadth of tools and resources available in ways both immediate, efficient, and amazingly adaptable to a tremendous range of uses. The simple acts of cut and paste, link and google have entered not only our lexicon, but the almost unconscious habits of increasing automation.
We live a wired, electronic life, often virtual, but seemingly more familiar than much of the natural, physical world. We discover, explore, and often thrive in networks of connection and community. Within these virtual communities, alternative media, new media, flourish and grow. The internet serves as an electronic commons.
Certainly the internet, the many new media outlets and the virtual communities they reflect, stand as vivid examples of the kind of phenomena that McLuhan sought to examine.
The virtual world of the internet creates a moral tension between traditional understandings of reality, and the evident, real consequences that derive from the “unreality” of virtual constructs. Still, the worlds reflected by the internet are merely some from all possible worlds.
And perhaps well reflective of McLuhan’s contemplations, the internet also creates many unanticipated consequences. The internet allows and encourages without much constraint a widespread exhibitionism, however seemingly anonymous. The internet represents the media greenhouse for all manner of crime, exploitation, manipulation, theft, confidence games, frauds and corruption.
Further, many people succumb to an intoxication with online virtual reality. They immerse themselves in activity, thought, the exchange of ideas, and all manner of social networking. Unfortunately, for too many, that community participation comes at the expense of any near equivalent with the physical, external, reality-based world. And it’s not just phenomena of youth.
Many people rely on online community as a crutch, or alternative to real world community. Anonymity and the artificiality, the “virtualness” of the online experience allows people to define themselves, structure their interactions and relationships on individual terms. They have control, power, or influence, in contrast to what they perceive elsewhere. Others just get wrapped up for a season, and sometimes lose perspective.
As a MILBLOGGER, I’ve seen and experienced this firsthand. I find myself so involved at times with online communities, that I lose perspective on how narrow and encapsulated that world can be. Not everyone, maybe not even a significant minority of people read Instapundit, or Real Clear Politics, or Daily Kos for those of a different bent, or even the estimable Evangelical Outpost, and surely not my blog. But many of us who dwell in that world are often confronted with puzzled looks and blank stares even at the mention of blogs or blogging. We are still a tiny microcosm of the online world.
But other than accessibility, visibility, and differences (perhaps) in societal constraint, how is this different than the physical, non-virtual world? Don’t we as Christians run the same risks of cloistering or isolation in the “real world?”
God’s Call to Evangelize
Jesus calls on his followers to go and spread his Gospel, the Good News of God having sent the world His son, so that whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus led by example, seeking out sinners, as they had most need of the Physician. He walked among the lost, He lived life among them, He sought to reach them, and healed those who sought His mercy. He celebrated weddings, provided wine, dined with tax collectors and gave encouragement to the shunned and ignored.
He went where many religious leaders of his day would not go, He exhorted against dead religious observance, and He decried the elevation of man and tradition over the timeless heart and commands of God.
God also admonishes His children to be of the world, but not conformed to it.
The Great Commandment challenges us to serve as vessels for what He has poured into us: that Greatest of all Loves that He has shown to us, we are to share with others. Not when they come calling, not when they make themselves acceptable in His eyes, not under conditions we consider ideal in time and place. Go, He said, and make disciples of all the nations.
I dare to presume He would intend us to make disciples in all possible worlds, the virtual as well as the physical.
Christian New Media
There are excellent examples of Christian use of new media, and flourishing Christian online communities. Leading ministries reach contemporary audiences with new media, and the sometime difficulties of finding Christian publications and resources have been erased thanks to the adroitness of Christian publishers and the explosion of Christian internet sites. Christian bloggers abound, forming communities and blogging collectives. Some, like EO, are making significant inroads in traffic and exposure. No doubt, they reach many unsaved, and start conversation and debate. Some of these, by search and curiosity, then yearning and yielding, eventually find faith in Jesus as their savior.
Christians evangelize with new media. They reach the lost. They start conversations. They create relationships, and trust. They provide comfort and encouragement. They share ideas. They build, fortify, and amplify each other in Christian collective expression. They share audience, and thereby extend networks and the relationships they enable.
In every sense, Christians inhabit virtual reality in all the ways they inhabit the physical world. They learn and make use of new and emerging tools. Many churches keep their sermons online. Christian music abounds in music sharing sites, and many Christian families are carrying around I-pods filled with praise and worship music. Christian online dating services have even emerged.
Just as Christians used radio, and then television, as a media for evangelism and outreach, so too Christians have taken to the Internet to attract seekers and searchers, to proselytize, to evangelize, and to more flexibly and creatively serve their congregations, physical and virtual.
Cloisters of Fellowship
Does that mean that any and all Christian use of the internet and new media is holy, righteous, or in keeping with God’s purposes? Of course not.
God’s people aren’t always very Godly. We fail our Creator, we fall short. Tragically, one of the most damaging ways we fail in our faith is that we isolate, we stick to ourselves, we focus inward, we shrink away from a difficult world, from dangerous and hurting people, and we turn away from the Greatest Commandment. Worse, many of us never see the slide from grace for what it is. We don’t acknowledge our failure of responsibility. We convince ourselves, just as the fallen do, that we’re pretty good, or good enough, or the good we do outweighs the bad, and certainly outweighs the good we never get around to doing.
In modest tribute to McLuhan, I devised a media (expression) of the all too common trajectory of Christian zeal for evangelism. Think of it as the Bell Curve of a too common Christian maturation process:
God’s Call upon the Christian
God’s Call upon the Christian to Evangelize
God’s Call upon the Christian
We start with an awareness, then acceptance of the reality of God.
We then hear God’s call to us.
We accept and acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, and by the Holy Spirit, begin to walk out God’s plan for our lives.
At its fullest expression, our understanding of God’s call leads us to evangelize, in fulfillment of the Great Commandment.
Sadly, some never make it that far, and the power of their faith ebbs like retreating tide. Even many who get there, retreat anyway.
The Cloistered Online
I submit that the greatest danger the internet and new media poses for the Christian (practitioner or evangelist) is the same danger posed by more traditional Christian community. Fellowships that turn inward, Congregations that self-serve, church bodies that exclude or separate or find more division with other Christians than unity, all of these stray from God’s call.
I don’t suppose this potential is any greater via new media than in the easier ways we isolate ourselves in the physical world. I certainly have witnessed enough isolation and cloistering behavior in churches to think the very act of stepping out online represents something of a hopeful sign, denoting an attempt to reach beyond the comfortable or known, seeking those who are lost.
In dialog such as those encouraged by Evangelical Outpost, and this Symposium, and the emerging communities of Christian bloggers, I also see a breaking down of denominational and doctrinal boundaries which have far too often stifled and stunted, than protected believers from error or bad doctrine.
I’ve read Catholic and other Orthodox church theologians, and serious students of Protestant faiths, and lots and lots of Christians who have tried to remain unaffiliated on doctrine, doing their part to confess the One Church of Jesus Christ.
We all bring a perspective of the faith experience, and if new media accomplishes little else, it encourages all of us to get out and about, and meet some of our neighbors. We walk past walls and through gates which in the physical world, remain tightly closed.
By seeking a broader, virtual community of Christ, we have the opportunity to more easily advance the purposes of God, and the advancement of His Kingdom.
That, and I kind of like the idea that God’s people can transmit the power of the Holy Spirit in the electronic dimensions of the internet. Not that He needs our help, not that He can’t find any way He wants, but there are far too many people who hide out in their virtual neighborhoods, hungering for freedom in faith, and the Truth that will set them free.
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