Monday, July 20, 2009

The Medium Makes The Church

I just read an interesting article I got in an email from Focus On the Family. Written by Meredith Whitmore, it examines the changes in our church services and worship methods as compared to years ago. I found it insighful, so I am passing it on:

"When I was teaching British literature, on the first day of each freshman class I'd write a line of the poem Beowulf in Old English:

Grendles guðcræft gumum undyrne.

Then I'd smile sweetly at my 40 or so students and say, "If you can't read this, then you'll probably fail the final. You might want to rearrange your class schedule."

Their expressions were really funny. Of course, I'd soon feel sympathy, confess my game and then flesh out an illustration of how the English language and its literature have changed over the centuries. After they stopped hating me, we had a great semester.

It's not just language and writing that have changed. Most social and spiritual constructs have, too, including churches and the way we worship.

You and I would probably be just as stunned as those students were if we suddenly found ourselves in Jonathan Edwards' congregation, listening to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." This 1741 sermon has been touted as one of the world's greatest. But to many 21st century minds it can sound perplexing and even abusive.

Reflection vs. Formula
It's more than a little interesting to compare contemporary Christian books such as The Purpose Driven Life with the works of Edwards and his predecessors. I'm not criticizing Rick Warren or authors like him. But I do want to establish the typically massive difference in style, tone, vocabulary, intricacy of thought and even theology—between them and the older pieces.

Styles change, certainly. But such differences are deeper than mere preference. They seem to indicate that our very thought processes and concentration levels have changed over the centuries—and drastically over the past 50 years.

With today's American sermons usually clocking in at 30 minutes or less, how would modern churchgoers fare in Edwards' day of three-hour-or-longer services? (Or Nehemiah's and Ezra's day-long readings of biblical law?) And what accounts for our shift from theologically dense hymns and liturgies to more emotionally based praise choruses? How about worship services that include dance and even painting? Though Jesus captivated listeners for hours on hillsides sans microphone, backup singers and video screens, the prevailing fear among pastors now is that their churches—buoyed by hilarious skits, rock bands and audiovisual effects—will still be thought of as dull.

So what's caused these intellectual and spiritual shifts? Any number of sociological and technological factors, to be certain. But the biggest culprit is likely media; churches are competing with television, movies, cell phones, video games, concerts and the Internet for people's attention.

This isn't a positive thing.

The Internet vs. Everyone
For years, numerous scholars, including communications theorists Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin, Oxford University synaptic pharmacologist Susan Greenfield, and pastor and media commentator Shane Hipps, have warned that media alter the way we think, not just what we think.

McLuhan, who died in 1980, went so far as to say, "The medium is the message." Based on his social research and observations, he believed that, when compared to the manner in which content is presented, content itself "has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb." That is, the way a message is delivered affects us more than the message does.

For example, if the Internet had an advisory label, it might read, "Warning: attention deficit and shallow thinking ahead." That's because the sheer volume of information that's always at the ready causes most Web users to skim, and not truly read. They bounce from thought to thought, site to site, preferring JPEGs, MPEGs and bullet points over in-depth analysis. The crisis in this is, as Tufts University psychologist Maryanne Wolf says, "We are not only what we read. We are how we read." She warns that when we use the Internet we become "mere decoders of information," and not deep interpreters of facts, achieving knowledge through mental connections and understanding.

"[The Internet] creates a permanent puberty of the mind," Hipps, a Mennonite pastor and author of Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, told Christianity Today. "We get locked in so much information, and the inability to sort that information meaningfully limits our capacity to understand. The last stage of knowledge is wisdom. But we are miles from wisdom because the Internet encourages the opposite of what creates wisdom—stillness, time and inefficient things like suffering. On the Internet, there is no such thing as waiting; there is no such thing as stillness."

Superficial reading nearly always leads to superficial thinking. And we have increasingly become a society that does not read so much as browse. Though the Internet moves vast amounts of facts to our fingertips, it doesn't teach us to analyze them and create a comprehensive thought—so we often confuse facts with wisdom and understanding. It's as Boorstin prophesied in the 20th century, well before Wikipedia wiped out encyclopaedias, "Technology is so much fun, but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge."

Logic vs. Images
Because of the printing press's mass production of reading materials, the modern world was word-based—and therefore analytical since language processing occurs in the logic-oriented left hemisphere of the brain. The postmodern world is increasingly image-based because of television, movies, advertising and the Internet. With reading and the written word's impact and appeal slowly declining—and don't think for a second that Facebook and Twitter are keeping them alive—thought processes are shifting from the reason-oriented left hemisphere to the much more emotive right.

While we need both to fully experience and interact with God and the world around us, it looks as if future generations—fed by unrelenting onscreen images—will be primarily right-brained, gathering meaning chiefly from intuition, feelings and dialogue. These qualities are critical, yes, but with a weakened ability to think critically, we're left with a society that's poorly equipped to understand itself or its Creator. One that reacts rather than responds to life.

Media vs. the Church
Now apply all of this to Christianity and the church.

The Bible is the most intricate and vital book we have—and if our ability to ponder and process its complexities is deteriorating because of media, then so is our ability to learn from God. Because His Word is so multifaceted, we need the ability to dive comprehensively into its beginning, middle and end and stay there for a while, not merely skimming the surface, as we do on the Web or a BlackBerry. It's frightening but probable that as our attention spans are continuously shortened and the distractions of various media compete for our concentration, that our reading styles are changing enough to cause us to, as Hipps says, "lose touch with Scripture"—whether we realize it or not.

Destroy the computer, then, I say. Turn off everything and resume reading St. Augustine by candlelight, right? Well, no. We can't escape technology, nor would we want to entirely because we do benefit from it as well. But isn't it our responsibility to become discerning, well-informed, disciplined users of media who evaluate their effects on us, the body of Christ and our nation?

Most definitely.

In his book Understanding Media, McLuhan prophetically wrote of those who unthinkingly interact with media: "Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior." So in our experience-driven culture, where feelings and simple impressions seem to reign over logical, well-reasoned and researched thought, it wouldn't hurt any of us to monitor and dissect our media interaction. When we prayerfully and continuously reconsider the Internet and a host of other technologies, therein lies our path to better thinking, reading and worship—online and off.

Then maybe epic poetry and 18th century sermons wouldn't be quite as intimidating."