May 30, 2006
The Gospel According to Electronic Culture: What if the medium really is the message?
Before entering ministry, Shane Hipps had a career in advertising developing multimillion dollar communication plans for brands like Porsche. It was during his time in advertising that Hipps gained expertise in understanding the power of media, technology, and culture. He left his lucrative career abruptly when he saw it as promoting a counterfeit gospel. Today, Shane Hipps serves as the Lead Pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Arizona. His new book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, The Gospel, And Church (Zondervan, 2006) is the confluence of his two professions.
Whenever we in the church debate new methods of communicating the gospel, or alternative ways of doing church it ends in a predictable turn. There is a point in these conversations when a person, hoping to end the debate once and for all, says "The methods must change as long as the message stays the same." So it would seem as long as we preserve the unchanging message, any method is fair game. This serves as a kind of evangelical rally cry for methodological innovation.
If they are feeling particularly sophisticated, they may go on to explain that, "Our methods, in and of themselves, are neither good nor evil, it is how we use them that determines their value."
Meaning, if we pipe pornography through the Internet it's bad, but if we post the Four Spiritual Laws there the Internet is good. We assume that any medium is simply a neutral conduit for information, like the plumbing in our house. The tubes are of little consequence unless they spring a leak. So as long as we are communicating the unchanging message of the gospel, every technology or method can be good. This tends to be our most nuanced conclusion.
Unfortunately, it fails to account for what our media and methods truly have the capacity to do and undo. And so we encounter them with the proverbial slip on the banana peel. We remain quite oblivious to the ways our message and our minds are being shaped by our methods and media.
The reality is, our methods are in no way "neutral," they have a staggering, yet hidden power to shape us regardless of their content. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he observed "The medium is the message." And it stands in direct contradiction to our evangelical rally cry. In other words, our media and methods have an inherent bias and a message of their own that has little or nothing to do with their content.
Consider the medium of the printed word. It is not coincidental that modernity and the "Age of Reason," (i.e. A celebration of linear thinking and rational argument) came about just after the printing revolution. The relentlessly linear, sequential, uniform medium of print inevitably gave rise to the same patterns in our thinking-- we become what we behold. Thus modernity celebrated syllogism, systematization, and reason above all else. And the modern church followed suit by unconsciously offering an "unchanging" gospel pressed into a linear, sequential, and reasonable formula:
Apologies for your sins + Believe in Jesus = Go to heaven.
As the print era wanes and electronic culture reigns, we are witnessing a morphing of modernity's "unchanging" gospel. Something as simple as communicating with images and icons has changed the way we conceive of the gospel. Images, regardless of their content, erode our capacity for abstract thought and linear reasoning; while at the same time reviving our preference for narrative, concrete experience, and mystery.
The result is a gospel according to electronic culture, which is often carried by the emerging church. This budding approach to faith embodies the bias of images (just as Eastern Orthodoxy has for centuries). It is a gospel encountered through iconic story, mystery, and experiential ritual, rather than linear proposition and reasoned argument. It is a gospel bathed in the mystery of God's Kingdom. It is elusive, deliberately defying categorization.
The most disconcerting part of it all is not that changes are happening - that is inevitable. It is that we stand oblivious to the magician's sleight-of-hand as a trick is played on our mind. And so we repeatedly seek to use our new methods only to be used by them.
This is not simply another call for a Luddite resistance to technology or new methods. Such a strategy is like trying to resist the wind and the tides; never mind that the Bible itself is a technology - a printed book. This is a call to take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.