I remember flinching for the dashboard as if that was going to help. The car was careening toward a snake-like elbow in the track. I glanced at the driver expecting him to slam on the brakes and save us from catastrophe. He looked almost bored; I think he may have even yawned. The car glided smoothly in and out of the turn as if it had prepared its whole life for that moment. As he accelerated out of the curve, the driver apologized for not going faster. Apparently, if you’re not wearing a helmet — and I wasn’t — drivers are only allowed to take the track at 70 percent speed. This was part of my “research” for the new account I had been assigned — Porsche Cars North America. At the time, I was working for an ad agency. The people at Porsche had taken us to a racetrack to develop an appreciation for their product. Apart from nearly soiling my drawers, it worked.
My role as an account planner in advertising was to serve as a kind of consumer anthropologist. Basically, I was to keep my finger on the pulse of what consumers influenced and what they were influenced by. There were no rules for this task, no formal training, no manual — just raw intuition, ingenuity, and a dose of insanity. As a result, I got to explore all kinds of strange things.
Much of what I did involved getting consumers from our target demographic to tell me things that they didn’t want me to know about intimate parts of their lives. My task was to unearth what we called “The Leverageable Insight.” Or put another way, the thing we could best exploit. Basically, the deeper we probed into people’s lives, the better. When you tap into the most intense or emotionally poignant experiences, you discover the trigger for all consumer impulses. The next task was for the creative team to find a way to associate that deep spiritual or emotional experience with our brand. If we were successful, the consumer soul would imprint to our brand the way a newborn babe imprints to a mother while nursing. In a very real sense, I spent seventy hours a week promoting a kind of counterfeit gospel. I wasn’t offering cheap grace mind you. Ours was an expensive gospel — somewhere between $80,000 and $120,000 depending on what level of salvation you could afford.
It was through a series of events and realizations that I came to terms with the fact that what I was really offering was antithetical to my most deeply held beliefs as a Christian. I was in the engine room of consumer culture — arguably the greatest threat to the gospel the world has ever known. It was a dangerous cocktail of this realization plus the experience of God’s call in my life that led me to leave my lucrative and enjoyable career in advertising to attend seminary and eventually accept my calling as a pastor. That shift felt like spiritual whiplash, but it was also like coming home.
DUSTING OFF MCLUHAN
In my pursuit of greater expertise while I was working in advertising, I inadvertently unearthed a thinker who had been considered irrelevant for decades. He was an obscure literary professor who applied his skills to the study of media and communication in contemporary culture. In unexpected fashion he exploded onto the scene and garnered national media attention. It seems he could predict the future and anticipate changes before they happened. In 1967 he decorated the cover of Newsweek and Life in the same week (Barbra Streisand was the only other person to do so).1Newsweek said his “theory of communication offers nothing less than an explanation of all human culture, past, present, and future.”2 The New York Herald Tribunedeclared that he was “the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.”3 His name was Marshall McLuhan. And chances are he’s the most important thinker you’ve never heard of.
McLuhan died in 1980 at the low point of his popularity. Oddly enough, the thing that made him so popular was the very thing that made him drift into obscurity. Shunned by academia as unconventional and increasingly opaque to the masses, he was relegated to the attic of pop culture history where his ideas began collecting dust. I stumbled into that attic in the late 90s, dusted off a book and began reading. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales suddenly fell from my eyes. I had an awakening. Suddenly, I saw two things very clearly: the glaring immorality of my profession and the profound implications of McLuhan’s thinking for people of faith.
He was able to see things about the nature of communication that no one else could see. Although frequently overlooked, few things are more important to a faith like ours. Remember, Christianity is fundamentally rooted in a communication event. The entire basis of our religion is predicated on God revealing himself to humanity — communicating to and with us. His self-revelation, or message, was delivered in a myriad of media including angels, burning bushes, stone tablets, and even a donkey. God is in the communication business. So in a sense, any serious study of communication is a study of God.
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
Evangelicals seem to be aware of this relationship between communication and the gospel. You’ve probably heard the saying, “The methods change, but the message stays the same.” There it is — the rallying cry of the evangelical church. It is the North Star that guides the most forward-looking leaders of the church. It serves both as a shield defending against the flaming arrows of those who cry “heresy” and as a catalyst for creativity and innovation in ministry. As long as you don’t change the message, anything goes for the methods of communicating it.
This view is based on a simple metaphor of media. Media and methods are merely “tools” or “vehicles.” They serve as neutral conduits, or pipelines, useful for dispensing the gospel. It’s like the plumbing in a house that carries water from the water heater to the faucet. We don’t think much about the pipes until one springs a leak.
However, this metaphor is a major problem. It prevents us from seeing the truth. The truth, as McLuhan famously observed, is that in fact the medium is the message. It’s a cryptic little aphorism that stands in direct contradiction to the evangelical rallying cry. He meant that the forms of our media, regardless of their content, have the power to shape our minds and our messages. In other words, you can’t change the methods without changing the message. So in this view, the content of any medium is really the magician’s sleight-of-hand to distract us from the trick being played on our minds. We sit and gawk at the banality of a show like American Idol, appalled by the hideous vocal offering of the latest contestant. All the while we remain totally unaware that the flickering mosaic of pixels slips the watch from our wrists and re-patterns neural pathways in our brains. In reality, media are much more than neutral purveyors of information. They have the power to shape us, regardless of content, and thus cannot be evaluated solely on their usage.
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
In ministry, it seems that we’re often in pursuit of answers to the most pressing questions. But McLuhan seemed far more interested in cultivating a capacity to question well, rather than answer rightly. In fact, if we know the right questions to ask of our ministry methods and media, we will be better equipped to anticipate their unintended consequences. McLuhan developed what he called The Laws of Media4 to help people do this. The laws are actually not statements, but questions that describe the four inevitable effects of all media. These are four questions we can ask of nearly any medium or method if we are going to deepen our understanding and gain clarity for the journey ahead.
1. What does the medium EXTEND?
Every new medium enhances, amplifies, or extends some human capacity. This might be a body part (the camera is an extension of the eye), a previous medium (the telephone is an extension of the telegraph) or even an emotion (smoke detectors extend our sense of smell, but also our feeling of security). This is the most obvious question to answer as it is almost always the reason we decide to employ a medium.
2. What does the medium MAKE OBSOLETE?
Every new medium makes an older technology obsolete. In this case, the term “obsolete” does not necessarily mean that the technology disappears, rather that the function of that previous medium changes. For example, the automobile made the horse and buggy obsolete. This means that the horse and buggy went from being used for transportation to being used for quaint entertainment and romance. We may also see the part of ourselves that is extended become obsolete. The wheel makes our feet obsolete; they are used less for transporting ourselves and more for operating levers that cause us to be transported.
3. What does the medium RETRIEVE?
Every new medium retrieves some ancient experience or media from the past. In other words, there is no such thing as a completely new technology. When we discover which medium is retrieved we can study its effects in hindsight in an effort to anticipate the future of the new medium. For example, the medium of e-mail retrieves the telegraph. If we want to understand the future effects of e-mail, we would be wise to study the cultural effects of the telegraph in the 1800s. Answering this question helps us investigate the last question.
4. What does the medium REVERSE INTO?
This is the law where we discover the dangers of media. When pushed to its extreme, every medium will reverse into its opposite intention. For example, when pushed to the extreme, the automobile — a medium intended to increase the speed of transportation — reverses into traffic jams and fatal accidents. This law of reversal can often be the most difficult to predict.
New questions serve to move our minds beyond traditional ways of thinking. This is why McLuhan framed his Laws of Media as questions rather than statements. This is not an analytic activity, but one that demands creativity, synthesis, and openness. Our media present us with an array of questions and no clear answers. McLuhan knew our cultural context was always changing, so the methods he used to investigate and analyze culture were quite unconventional. His last published words echo with prophetic truth:
In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer finding is one of no avail…Survival and control will depend on the ability to probe and to question in the proper way and place…The need is not for fixed concepts but rather for the ancient skill of navigating through an ever uncharted and unchartable milieu. Else we will have no more control of this technology and environment than we have of the wind and the tides.5
We are being invited to develop and hone the ancient skill of “navigating through an ever uncharted and unchartable” culture. This skill is not developed through finding the right answers and locking onto fixed ideas, but rather by having the courage and wisdom to ask the right questions at the right time and place.
A FISH OUT OF WATER
Our technological society has entered a stage unprecedented in human history. We are witnessing such rapid and overwhelming innovation that it’s dizzying. And with each new change, we see a shift in the way we relate to one another. If relationships are central to our faith, and if the medium is the message, then it’s incumbent on us to ask a very important question: how does our electronic culture shape our communities?
We can’t answer this question from our current vantage point. There is a Chinese parable that says, “If you want to learn what water is, don’t ask a fish.” The reason? Water is the natural environment of the fish; it is all the fish has ever known. In fact, the fish hardly knows that it exists. So too with us. We are so immersed in our technological society, we hardly notice it is there. Therefore, to understand what is happening in this day and age, we have to get out of the fish bowl and out of the water. The best way to do that is to travel back in time to witness the values of a culture prior to modern technology. “I” IS FOR INDIVIDUAL
I have a two-year-old daughter. These days I am spending a lot of time teaching her one of the most powerful technologies the world has ever known. It’s the one you are consuming right now: the technology of letters — the invention of reading and writing. This invention radically transformed the consciousness of an entire civilization.
Consider the experience of a woman living in a pre-literate, or oral, culture. There is no knowledge or means of writing. This person would have no ability to fix her ideas in space or time. Let’s say she has a very important thought, a thought so important that it could change the course of history. Without any ability to fix this thought in time and space, she must rely on her community for retention of ideas and stories. She shares her thought with the community and then they share it with each other. This is called oral tradition. The stories tend to be short, rhythmic blocks of teaching that make them easier to internalize and remember. The gospel accounts in your Bible are products of oral tradition.
One of the chief marks of all oral cultures is that they are very tribal in nature. They depend on the community to retain their most important ideas, traditions, and stories. In fact, a tribe member’s sense of identity is determined by the complex interrelationships of the tribe. The notion of the individual is almost nonexistent because tribe members are together all the time. And they tend to be very empathic. Everybody knows everybody else’s business. A modern Western psychologist would look at this culture and say its members are very enmeshed.
Now the question is: What happens when we introduce the technology of writing into our oral culture? First, the technology of reading and writing demands isolation. It serves to separate us from the tribe. Then, because we have the ability to fix our ideas in time and space, we no longer have the threat of losing those ideas. And so the tribe is no longer necessary for establishing and maintaining one’s cultural identity. As a consequence, literate societies tend to be very individualistic. Identities are determined by boundaries. My personal identity is determined not by the tribe, but by where I end and you begin. The concern is with who I am as an individual apart from the tribe. This leads to an emotional distancing.
Consider this. If you’re in a heated argument with your spouse, the technology of writing provides a cooling effect. It gives us, for the first time in the human history, the ability to act without reacting. If I sit and journal my thoughts and feelings, they reside outside me, independent of me. I’m able to look at them in time and space. I can analyze them and try to understand them. I’m then able to reenter the argument with new clarity and emotional distance. Thus, literate cultures show a preference for detached objectivity over subjective experience.
These are just a few examples of the shaping power of literacy. Two different cultures — two different value systems and cultural habits determined in large part by the media used to communicate. It has nothing to do with what you say, but rather with what you use to say it.
THE TRIBAL DRUM BEATS AGAIN
Literate culture in the West lasted from the invention of the printing press in the 15th century until 1850, about 400 years. But from 1850 to 1890, a slew of uninterrupted inventions completely dissolved and reconstituted the communication structure in the West. And what made them unique was their ability to harness the power of electricity. Every single modern day technology, from the Internet to iPhones to podcasting, can be traced back to a small handful of these original inventions. In my view, the three most important are the telegraph, the photograph, and the radio. For our purposes here, we’ll consider only one of these.
McLuhan called the radio the “Tribal Drum.” It returned humanity to the world of the voice and the ear. It immerses us in the boundless, horizonless experience of acoustic space. And every time it “beats,” we huddle around the fire, listening to shared tribal music and stories. This retribalizing tendency of the radio and newer technologies erodes the individual’s experience of a unique point of view. It returns us to simultaneous, surround-sound experience of acoustic and oral space on a mass scale. Take September 11. Unless you were at Ground Zero, you joined every other American in experiencing the exact same event, from the same set of camera angles, at the same time. That is a mass experience with no unique point of view. This is the retribalizing tendency of electronic culture.
THE PARADOX OF ELECTRONIC CULTURE
While it’s true that we in the West are being retribalized under the force of the digital age, we are not returning to the simplicity of an oral culture. We are still raised today as individuals. From the very earliest time, I am teaching my daughter the individualizing technology of reading and writing. Success in our culture depends on the mastery of that technology. Under these conditions, we experience the simultaneous experience of being thrown together from far-off places and being separated from those nearest to us.
The effect is a paradoxical one. Electronic culture does opposite things at the same time. If oral culture is tribal, and literate culture is individual, then the phenomenon of the electronic age is marked by what I call thetribe of individuals. We live in a confused state of being characterized by a deep and growing desire for connection and community and the ever-increasing experience of an electronic nomad. It’s the isolating and thin existence of electronically wandering the globe, glancing off one another, but never really connecting or encountering the other.
The paradoxes go on. If oral culture is empathic, and literate culture is distant, the electronic age is marked byempathy at a distance. This is a condition that emerges when our TVs and computer screens flood our living rooms with images of planetary suffering: from September 11 to the Tsunami to Darfur to all the other ongoing famine, genocide, wars, and starvation in the world. While this allows us the opportunity to extend compassion to these far-off places, it actually has the opposite affect. There is an immediate outpouring of support followed by a detached, clinical numbness.
The end result is apathy and inaction. This is not our fault; it’s not because we are bad people. The human psyche isn’t designed to withstand all the weight and trauma of global suffering without shutting down. Numbness and exhaustion are natural reactions. This experience of horror and empathy, followed by shutting down and feelings of helplessness, is the condition of empathy at a distance. And it didn’t exist prior to the electronic age. The reason this matters is that the spiritual habit of empathy at a distance also finds its way into our local communities. It becomes increasingly difficult to muster local activism and genuine concern for others when global suffering has already cauterized the nerves of compassion.
Our new electronic nomadic existence is a powerful one. We do not sojourn as a group — we drift and journey on our own. But we have radios, TVs, iPods, cell phones, and laptops. We are constantly participating in a network of other disembodied acquaintances. So we are hardly aware of our aloneness.
These virtual relationships have a strange effect. They provide just enough of a connection to paralyze our best efforts at unmediated community. In this kind of “community,” our contacts involve very little real risk and demand even less of us personally. In this sense we experience another paradox: intimate anonymity. We have the illusion of being intimate with people while remaining totally anonymous if we desire — this is the draw and danger of so-called virtual community. There is no need to offer real vulnerability. Community that promises freedom from rejection and makes authentic emotional investment optional can be extremely appealing, remarkably efficient, and a lot more convenient.
In this way, virtual community functions a bit like cotton candy: it goes down easy and satiates our immediate hunger, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of sustainable nutrition. It spoils our appetites for the kind of authentic community that is essential to spiritual vitality.
Authentic community is an elusive and slippery term. Borrowing from sociologists and theologians, I share the assumption that authentic community involves high degrees of intimacy, permanence, and proximity. These practices foster shared memories as well as a shared imagination of the future, elements crucial to becoming the people of God.6 While relative intimacy can be gained in virtual settings, the experiences of permanence and proximity have all but vanished. Without these we lose our shared memories and imagination for where we are going, elements central to our identity as the Body of Christ.
If virtual community functions like cotton candy, then authentic community is more like broccoli. It may not always taste good, but it provides crucial nourishment for the formation of our identities. Authentic community will undoubtedly be marked by conflict, risk, and rejection. At the same time it offers the deepest levels of acceptance, intimacy, and support.
I’m not morally opposed to cotton candy. It serves a legitimate, albeit limited, function in one’s diet. In the same way I am not morally opposed to virtual community; it also serves an important and limited function in our electronic culture. The problem is that virtual community is slowly becoming the preferred means of relating.
I have two friends who live three blocks from one another. They talk several times a day on their cell phones. They consider themselves the closest of friends and were each other’s best man. When I last spoke with one of them, he said he hadn’t seen his friend in eight weeks. Both have lamented to me on separate occasions that they know very little about each other’s deepest struggles and desires; it remains a somewhat superficial relationship. They are quite unaware of the cell phone’s power to inoculate our need to connect in person, which is where true intimacy and depth are born.
THE BLOGGING MIND
Blogs, when taken to an extreme, present a related problem. They allow us to participate in organic dialogue. However, they also have a remarkably addictive tendency to tickle our intellects, seducing us into a Pandora’s box of perpetual links, people, and ideas. The result is that we are drawn wider, but rarely deeper. This is true both in terms of the ideas we explore and the relationships we build. The great wonder of blogging is found in its dynamic speed. We are exposed to many more ideas than previously possible, and we are given a chance to dialogue about them in near real-time settings. However, the medium of blogging, regardless of content, has a natural bias toward confusion rather than clarity. It prefers careless language patterns, slack logic, and superficial relationships. This is at the expense of intellectual precision, thoughtful language, and meaningful connection with those in close proximity.
Avid political blogger and Atlantic Monthly columnist Andrew Sullivan made this observation about himself in a March 3, 2008 post entitled “A Blog Sabbath?”
I’m all but surgically attached to the web. I’m working 24/7, and increasingly isolated from social interaction. Going to the Atlantic offices helps, but getting a grip on this thing is hard. The blogging mind does not easily adjust to reading a book or allowing an unformed thought to stay unformed. Even when you carve out time for more offline reading or living, it’s hard to switch gears. And the danger of burnout is serious.
Evidence of his addiction is found in the fact that his blog now serves as his confession booth. Only instead of a priest there to absolve him, there are a million disembodied, faceless, and anonymous souls who offer their well-intentioned, but helpless and hollow condolences.
It should haunt us that so many churches are in hot pursuit to make use of this growing Web 2.0 technology. It is one of the many thin “tools” employed in search of the holy grail of “building community.” However, they will encounter this new medium with the proverbial slip on the banana peel if they persist in thinking it is a neutral aid, completely unaware of its natural bias and overwhelming force to dismantle authentic community. Virtual community inadvertently inoculates people against the desire to physically be with other people. Being together is nice, but not necessary.
It sounds almost too obvious to say at this point, but personal, face-toface connections have an immeasurable impact on how we establish, build, and maintain relationships. While most of us know this already, it’s amazing how few of us practice it. The experience of virtual community can feel just as real as physical community, but the social, spiritual, and emotional realities do not provide the same kind of connections. This means that we must be discerning about the way we use information technologies to make decisions or build and maintain relationships in the church. We must ask how our media change personal interactions. We need to consider the message conveyed when we choose an e-mail or text message over a personal visit, phone call, or handwritten note. These may seem like mundane questions, but they help generate an awareness of the forces that unravel community.
Most importantly, we must recognize our unconscious tendency to be seduced by our virtual communities so that we can use them more intentionally rather than be used by them. Our subtle addiction to electronic community is not like an addiction to drugs, where the only solution is to stop using entirely. It is more like an addiction to food or money, where we must learn to regain power over something we cannot do without. On occasion, we may consider fasting from certain media or technologies as a spiritual discipline. This can be a very effective way to help us perceive media’s power and recalibrate our psyches. Ultimately, we must develop healthy relationships with our technologies. This means nurturing a conscious awareness of their power, our longings, and the way they both shape us, our faith, and our communities.
WHAT DOESN’T BEND, BREAKS
I was 10 years old when I met William Lo. He was a 60-year-old Chinese man and friend of my father. During his visits he would stay with us. I remember waking up every morning and looking out the window to see our Chinese friend in the backyard performing what looked like a slow-motion dance. He would sway and lean as though responding to the wind. His arms would trace controlled arcs in circular movements through the air. I later learned he was a master of an ancient martial art called tai chi and had been performing this two-hour ritual every morning for the last 40 years.
Every now and then, William would teach me a few simple techniques. The one I remember most vividly was how to respond if someone tried to push me. First he modeled the way by inviting me to push him as hard as I could. Eager to play and learn, I backed up and ran straight at him, throwing all my 10-year-old strength into his chest, only to find myself facedown on the ground behind him. It was as though I had traveled right through him.
As I got up, he said, “Now I’m going to push you lightly. Try to resist me with all your strength.” I stood my ground as he offered a gentle nudge. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground again. At this point he shared his secret knowledge: “When someone pushes you,” he said, “do not resist the force, or it will overtake you. Instead you must understand the force and cooperate with it. Only then will you disarm it.” That day William taught me how to relax my upper body in such a way as to absorb and deflect the momentum of an outside force. I learned that whatever doesn’t bend, breaks. It was a remarkably effective technique that even worked to disarm a schoolyard bully later that year.
William Lo’s wise counsel is also appropriate advice as we seek ways to respond to the forces of electronic culture. Instead of simply resisting, critiquing, or uncritically embracing cultural forces, we are first invited to study and understand them. Only then will we learn to use them, rather than be used by them. Only then will we regain our equilibrium and anticipate the powers that shape us.
1. Marshall McLuhan’s seminal idea was that the medium is the message. What are some common examples of media you use and how do they shape the messages that they communicate?
2. McLuhan’s Laws of Media are actually questions that help us evaluate the effects of a new medium or technology. Use these questions from pages 4-5 to evaluate a current technology, such as surveillance cameras or social networking websites.
3. Shane Hipps lists several paradoxical consequences of electronic culture: we become a tribe of individuals, we feel empathy at a distance, and we experience intimate anonymity. What are some ways you see these three phenomena in your church or neighborhood? What about in your own life?
4. How often do you participate in “virtual community” or write or read blogs on the Internet? How do you respond to the dangers presented here regarding the effects of these on genuine community?
5. What technologies or forms of media does your community of faith currently use that need to be evaluated?
6. Fasting from certain technologies or media for a time can help us “recalibrate our psyches.” What technology should you consider fasting from and why?
1 W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding: A Biography (Toronto: Stoddart, 1997), 226.
2 W. Terrence Gordon, McLuhan for Beginners (New York: Writers and Readers, 1997), 2
3 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1st MIT Press ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), x.
4 Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 93.
5 Ibid., 239.
6 Mark Lau Branson, “Forming God’s People,” Congregations, Vol. 29 (Winter 2003): 22-27.